IT has been all sunshine and delight for Donegal in Ulster finals over the last two years, but Declan Bonner has experienced the losing dressing room at the showpiece event as well.
Donegal have dominated Ulster in recent times and racked up handsome final wins over Fermanagh and Cavan, who they face again this weekend, in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
However, things haven’t always run so smoothly for Bonner.
The Na Rossa clubman dipped his toes into inter-county management for the first time in 1998 and led his native county to the Ulster decider.
However, they would lose to Derry by 1-7 to 0-8, with Joe Brolly breaking Donegal hearts with a late goal.
Management has changed considerably since then and Bonner says you have to be willing to move with the times.
“The whole thing has changed,” he said ahead of their final with Cavan on Sunday.
“Back then we didn’t know any different and it was what it was. I was still dealing with guys that I played with in ’92.
“Football was different back then and it has changed a lot. It has even changed in the three years that I have been back in charge.
“It is evolving at such a pace and we have a very professional backroom team there covering all aspects, and a playing group that are totally committed to what it is about.
“They continue to want to learn and want to work and that is all that you can ask.
“We’re making ground slowly and surely and from my point of view, it’s great to be back in another Ulster final, but it’s only great if you go on and win it.”
Key to Donegal’s plans this week will be their captain Michael Murphy.
The Glenswilly forward was given a lot of attention by the Armagh defence last week, and when the first half water break was called, Bonner went over to the referee David Coldrick and asked that his star man get more protection.
“Michael gets that attention every time he goes out.
“I did feel in the first quarter that there were a number of definite free kicks that we didn’t get.
“Michael is a big strong lad and he comes in for special treatment. He is a special player but I don’t feel he gets the protection that he deserves.
“Michael is well fit to look after himself, but in the early stages of the match (against Armagh), I felt there were decisions that should have been free ins that we didn’t get.
“But we move on and get ready for next week.”
Limerick won the Munster Hurling Championship last Sunday but their captain Declan Hannon didn’t make a speech after the game.
The Limerick manager John Kiely said he was offended that 10 of his squad were not able to attend the match, and that the trophy would not be presented to the players until they were all at training together.
Kiely appealed for the full panel to be permitted in to matches and Bonner echoed his sentiments.
“The one thing that is disappointing from our point of view, and I’m sure it is the same for a lot of managers up and down the country, is that we work off a squad of 30-plus players and a management team.
“Over the last two championship games, we were restricted and there are lads that can’t get to matches.
“There are lads that are left at home and management that are left at home, and all these guys are so important to the whole group.
“They put in the same effort, the same commitment, and the same time as everyone else, and I think for the sake of 1- different individuals,
there should be some room where these guys are allowed in to an Ulster final.”
It does seem peculiar that injured players who played a big part in previous matches can not attend the final, and Bonner says it is not easy informing panellists that they will have to watch from their sofa.
“It’s tough telling players that they are not in the 26 number one, and also that they are not travelling or part of the group for that particular day.
“Those guys have worked long hard hours on the training ground and during lockdown and they have done everything that has been asked of them.
“Ulster final day is a very important day, and I’m sure all provincial championships are the same, and I think it’s important that the powers-that-be look at and allow these guys to get into the game on Sunday.”
Bonner travels to Cavan regularly for work purposes and he knows all about their passion for football and their tradition.
The Breffni county have shown tremendous resilience to come from the preliminary round and reach the final.
Bonner appreciates that they have many strengths, and that they have been finishing games strongly.
“Looking at the last number of games, Mickey (Graham) has used his bench. The bench has been important for a lot of teams but Cavan have used it well.
“I thought the introduction of Conor Madden at half time against Down had a real positive effect. He kicked some massive scores and was a huge threat throughout that second half.
“They had been using Thomas Galligan coming off the bench. He started against Down and was very effective.
“Gearoid McKiernan, when it was needed most in the second half, really came to prominence. Padraig Faulkner is one of their leaders.
“They have a lot of good players and a fair degree of experience and a lot of young lads coming through.”
By Ryan Ferry