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07 Jul 2022

How a closed door at Celtic opened one for 'jinxed' Declan Bonner with Donegal

Declan Bonner had never played competitive football until U-14, yet before finishing secondary school he had captained Ireland and had been offered a contract at Celtic by Billy McNeill, only to never get the chance to sign. Instead he's given Donegal GAA 40 years service and he hopes there's more to come

How a closed door at Celtic opened one for 'jinxed' Declan Bonner with Donegal

Declan Bonner in his playing days for Donegal with his daughter Amara. Photos: Brian McDaid and Michael Jack O'Donnell

It was in the days before the sideline official would show the board to display how much injury time was to be played - but everyone among the 28,369 crowd at St Tiernach’s Park knew it was close.

Close on the scoreboard at 0-7 apiece. Close to the end. With the northern powers having come from nowhere to grapple a stranglehold from the traditionalists in the early 1990s, capturing four All-Irelands in a row, prior to the emergence of Armagh and Tyrone in the early 21st century, the 1998 in-betweeners final between Donegal and Derry was a stagnant affair.

It was described by The Donegal Democrat’s Peter Campbell the following week as “a shambles,” one in which there were only six points shared in the first half. At the time, with five minutes to play, few thought the introduction of Geoffrey McGonigle - a dual player from Dungiven with the appearance not dissimilar to a nightclub bouncer - would provide the prelude to the moment for which the occasion sticks in the memory banks of many even now.

McGonigle won - by fair means or foul, depending on which side of the border you might reside - a raking Anthony Tohill punt ahead of Noel McGinley to set up Joe Brolly for the winning goal 24 seconds into injury time. “Give Joe Brolly an inch and he thinks he's a ruler,” as Cliona Foley put it in the The Irish Independent. Some Donegal supporters behind the goals still recall getting sprayed from the dripping net as the ball smashed it that miserable July afternoon. Brolly, as only Brolly can do, infuriated them some more, blowing a few kisses. 

One nine-year-old, in particular, was reduced to tears. His name was Michael Murphy, who years later remembered it being “a quiet run home” that evening. Brolly, with the widest smile in Clones, earned a congratulatory hug afterwards from the Ulster Council's guest of honour, President Mary McAleese. 

For Declan Bonner, the Donegal manager, who was only 32 at the time, it was a bitter pill to swallow. “Yeah it rankles,” he says. “Mr Brolly. We led up till the 70th minute and then the late goal.”

Although it was celebrated euphorically at the time, for Derry, too, that moment represents something of a regret. Soundly beaten in the All-Ireland semi-final, with Séan Moran in The Irish Times going with the line “Galway run Derry's old men ragged,” 24 years have passed and they haven’t got a rub of the Anglo-Celt Cup since. 

Donegal, All-Ireland champions in 1992, had to wait some 19 years before they were provincial champions again, when Jim McGuinness led the team to the 2011 final victory over Derry. Many consider Brolly's goal as the most painful moment in the wilderness years.

The only defeat that came anywhere near it was the opening chapter for the lost generation, was also against Derry, when, in 1993, Brian McEniff’s side passed the torch onto Eamonn Coleman - although it was that wet in Clones the torch would’ve been extinguished before the flame got a chance to light.

“It should never have taken place,” Bonner says of 1993. “We played in horrific conditions.” Late in that game, with Derry having arm-wrestled themselves into a lead of 0-8 to 0-6 and Donegal struggling to get the ball out of the puddles of muck, never mind create a goal chance that would’ve saved them, on RTÉ Radio, Michéal Ó Muircheartaigh said chillingly “... and Donegal are still the All-Ireland champions …” six times in a row. 

He continued until referee Tommy McDermott’s final whistle finally went to put Donegal out of their misery so the arrangements could be made and the obituaries drawn up. Within three months Derry had Sam Maguire under the Sperrins and Bonner, five years before 1998, was left to wonder what might have been.   

After 1998, he had two more seasons as county manager, never getting as close again and a certain Rory Gallagher of Fermanagh put paid to his tenure in 2000 - the last season before the safety net of the qualifiers, and the last season it appeared for Bonner.

He admitted last week there were times in his life he felt jinxed. However, on more considered and modest reflection, Bonner’s got an inbuilt trait of bouncebackability. 

Having never played competitive soccer until he began secondary education at Rosses Community School, Bonner took up the sport as an U-14. Before he finished up school in 1983, Bonner lined out for Finn Harps and then captained Ireland U-17s under Liam Touhy, with Brian Kerr coaching, alongside players like Niall Quinn, Ken DeMange and Brian Mooney against Scotland, Wales and England in an era, as Roy Keane would later state, that international squads were “pretty Dublin-centric”.

 

Celtic manager Billy McNeill - the man who captained the immortal Lisbon Lions to the 1967 European Cup - saw something in the flame-haired left-back from the Rosses, who was sent to Glasgow by his school team’s manager, Paddy Murray.

“I was offered a two-year contract,” Bonner recalls of Celtic. “It was during my Leaving Cert and I would have been over at two or three different stages. That Easter I had been over and then Billy McNeill called me in to say ‘yeah, we’ll give you a contract and come back in for pre-season’.

“I was training with the first team – Charlie Nicholas, Danny McGrain was just coming near the end, you could name them all – Peter Latchford, Packie Bonner had just got into the squad, Paul McStay had broken into the team, George McCluskey, Roy Aitken, Tom McAdam, Mark Reid, Murdo MacLeod ...”

That June, the phone rang at Rosses Community School, with the state examinations being sat, and it was Packie Bonner. McNeill was on his way to Manchester City having fallen out with the Celtic board who had sold Nicholas to Arsenal. Incoming manager Davy Hay had his own plans. 

“I was doing the Leaving Cert and I got a call halfway through it to the school to say that McNeill had gone to Manchester City with his backroom team and that was it,” Declan Bonner says. “Nobody took a look at McNeill's desk. There was nobody else there to say ‘we will get you over.’ That was just the way it was. It was over”

Packie Bonner, in his autobiography, The Last Line, insists Declan Bonner could have made it: “Declan was a gifted player in both GAA and soccer and, in truth, could have, some would say should have, had a career at Celtic. He was only 17, but had impressed with his ability and hunger for the game.”

Ironically, McNeill would bury the hatchet with Celtic and returned in the summer of 1987 to guide the club to the league and cup double in their centenary year. Bonner, after taking a couple of years away from soccer, began moonlighting with Finn Harps again under Patsy McGowan in the winter months, and had caught the attention of Donegal’s inter-county managers whilst playing for Na Rossa, something he mightn't have known then, but would still be doing into his early fifties.

Donegal had won the All-Ireland U-21 championship in 1982 for the first time whilst Bonner was still at school. Bonner, alongside Brian Murray, then played four years at U-21 level, winning nothing, before Donegal won a second All-Ireland U-21 in his first season being overage, in 1987. Bonner became a county senior only months after their 1983 Ulster title win, with Donegal not reaching so much as a final in the province again for six years. Maybe, as he said himself, he was jinxed. 

“I was more or less taken into the Donegal seniors and I didn’t play soccer for a couple of years after it,” he says. “My family would have had a complete GAA background. My father (Dan - a former inter-county footballer who won the 1958 Donegal SFC title with Dungloe) would have had no interest. He played county football but had no interest in me playing soccer.”

When Donegal were ousted from Ulster by Armagh in 1988, Bonner hit Boston and having fallen out of favour with Tom Conaghan was not part of the county seniors in 1989. 

At Na Rossa, Bonner’s club from Leitir who were founded in 1976 - the smallest of Donegal’s 40 clubs sandwiched between Naomh Conaill and Dungloe -  nobody was willing to take on the role of manager. Bonner, at 23, did and whilst playing alongside his brothers Sean, Michael, Donal and Aidan, guided them to success in the Donegal Intermediate Championship in his one year in charge. 

Brian McEniff was back in the Donegal hotseat in 1990 and with Bonner back too - sometimes playing through the pain barrier due to a groin injury which was under the watchful eye of Dr Pat O'Neill. Donegal were Ulster champions for only the fourth time. Then, they repeated that provincial success two years later by beating a Derry side who had blazed their way to victory in the National League, in the cacophonic heat of Clones with 14 men, following the first half dismissal of John Cunningham by referee Jim Curran. 

Donegal, rank outsiders but more than happy to fuel that notion against a much-talked about Dublin, went on to win the All-Ireland for the first time on an 0-18 to 0-14 scoreline. Bonner scored four points, including the last, which provided the Reeling In The Years moment, cutting in from right to left to arc over at the Canal End in front of a sea of green and gold. 

That, for Bonner, described as a “commentator’s’ dream” was the standout moment. He pottered on in both codes - even as player-player with Keadue Rovers alongside fellow 1992 All-Ireland winner Tony Boyle, his brother Ben, Ollie Reid, Brendan Gillespie, Martin Doherty and Liam Sweeney, winning the Donegal League and making deep inroads in the FAI Junior Cup.

Bonner damaged a kidney against Wicklow in a league match at Croke Park in 1996, which kept him out for a year and by 1997, cracked a rib or two playing against Martin McHugh’s Cavan, who went on to win Ulster for the 39th time - their first since 1969. Many felt McHugh was the obvious Donegal manager in waiting, or perhaps even 1992 skipper Anthony Molloy, who had taken the county minors to a first ever All-Ireland final in 1996. However, on his 32nd birthday, it was Bonner who got the job.

“Thinking back on it, you wonder how the hell did you do that,” Bonner says now. “I was managing and there were players older than me on the team. There were players that I played with. There were still a good number of the 1992 guys there.

“That was never going to be easy because some of those players were coming towards the end. Some would have thought they could play for a bit longer and I had decisions to make that they weren't playing or whatever. Those decisions are never easy to make. That's part and parcel of it. You do what you think is right for the group and for the team. That's the way it is.”

After 2000, Bonner was more local, taking Gaoth Dobhair to the championship and league double in 2006 and five years later, almost by chance, was back in county management, although far away from Croke Park or Clones. 

“I fell into it because my own lad, Christian, was playing. Normally at U-15, the county is split into southern and northern development groups,” Bonner says. “There were four from our club who had come up and they were involved, and I was just basically dropping them off on a Saturday morning.

“Paddy Hegarty was on his own looking after thirty-odd young lads so I went in the following week and that was it, and I ended up taking charge of them.”

Bonner took a group, with ins and outs, which included Stephen McMenamin, Brendan McCole, Eoghan Bán Gallagher, Caolan McGonagle, Michael Langan, Jason McGee, Jamie Brennan, Niall O'Donnell, Dáire Ó Baoill and Ethan O'Donnell to Buncrana Cup and U-17 success, the Ulster minor title and an All-Ireland final appearance in 2014, and provincial U-21 crown three years later.

“Outside of Brian McEniff, no one has given as much service to Donegal,” former player Brendan Devenney said of Bonner in The Sunday Times last year. “Declan is right up there. Think of all he did as a player, two stints managing the senior team, all the underage teams. Talk about a life in football. We owe the guy so much.”

When Rory Gallagher’s three years with Donegal ended in the autumn of 2017, Bonner was back as senior team manager. Twenty years after Joe Brolly and Geoffrey McGonigle, this time in a sun-baked Clones, he was was an Ulster champion as a manager - only the third in Donegal’s history after McEniff and McGuinness - at last with Donegal after cruising to a 2-18 to 0-12 victory over Gallagher’s Fermanagh. Twelve months later, Donegal were provincial winners again, following a win over Cavan. 

A bit like the world in general in the midst of pandemic times, 2020 and last year were a little stop-start for Donegal but two weeks ago another defeat of Cavan set up another Ulster final. Bonner and Donegal and Gallagher and Derry have intertwined pasts. For now though, all that matters is the present. And following four decades of involvement with Donegal football, Bonner is still very much part of that. You get the feeling he’s far from done yet.

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