Declan Bonner: Championship format far from ideal but Donegal just happy to get back playing

Declan Bonner: Championship format far from ideal but Donegal just happy to get back playing

Donegal manager Declan Bonner. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Declan Bonner knows he has to plot but only to a point. God laughs when man plans but when a manager does it beyond beating the team in front of him in the Ulster Senior Football Championship, he guffaws.

For Donegal, charting a course out of the province could prove onerous depending on next week’s draw. As they have avoided the preliminary round these last two seasons, there is a two in five chance of them being picked out of the hat for the province’s opening SFC game - Cavan, Derry, Monaghan, and Tyrone are exempt.

Bonner doesn’t need to be told Donegal won their last All-Ireland from the foot of the Ulster SFC and didn’t Cavan win the province from that early stage last year? And hasn’t he brought Donegal to the last three provincial finals, winning two of them?

Yet a second successive knock-out championship played over the space of six weeks after what is effectively an elite Ulster league campaign looks decidedly difficult. Ulster, it is known, had unsuccessfully lobbied for a qualifier system and understandably so given the absence of a safety net will be felt more acutely there. If Jim McGuinness thought last year that the system was rigged against Ulster teams, what might he say now?

Given his position, Bonner has to be more diplomatic. 

“It’s far from an ideal world at the moment and all we want to do at the moment is get back playing, to be quite honest,” he shrugs. 

“We’re going into a mini-Ulster Championship in the League and that’s not ideal. After Armagh, Monaghan, and Tyrone, we have another League game, and then it’s straight into the Ulster Championship.

“Everybody knows Ulster is the most competitive and has been for many years. Last year, it wasn’t won by any of the four teams in Division 1 this year so it is really tough. It is what it is but we just want to get back playing. It’s been a long five months since we lost that Ulster final in November.

“The whole scenario is not ideal but we just have to get on with it. I said previously it was an ideal opportunity to trial an open championship with no spectators being allowed into the venues and it would have been a fairer way to do it but this is the way it’s going to be. It’s going to be highly exciting and great to get back on the pitch.” 

In the past 25 seasons, only four teams followed an Ulster title with an All-Ireland final appearance. The Anglo-Celt crown weighs heavy but those lining up on the start line of the northern province know the occupational hazards involved.

“We drew Tyrone last year and if we draw them or another Division 1 team again there are going to be high profile casualties again early on,” Bonner notes. 

“That’s the way it was going back to knock-out championship. In the early 1990s, Derry and Down got knocked out in their first game as defending All-Ireland champions.

“The backdoor gave teams more of an equal opportunity but we’re not in a time now to have the qualifiers. We’re happy the League is taking place because we will need games. By the time the League starts, it will be six months by the time we last played a game. It’s about trying to find a bit of momentum going into the Championship and that’s what we’ll be using the League for as well as looking at players.

“You usually use the McKenna Cup to get guys up to speed and that’s probably what the League will be used for this year. You probably will end up playing one of these teams in the Championship - we played Tyrone twice in the space of three weeks when we came back last year. It’s not going to happen in most other provinces but Ulster is unique like that in how competitive it is. That’s the beauty of it too.” 

Bonner has yet to put together a strategy as to how to deal with the maor foirne role being discontinued. He talks of the water breaks having possibly extra significance but ultimately knows the decision at Congress will heap more responsibility on players.

“It is going to change things because there is very little that can be done now from a sideline point of view in terms of getting the message across to players. You hope, as you hope in every game, that when the players cross that white line they will consider the game-plan and the instructions and they will deal with what happens on the pitch.

“That’s where your leaders come into it. We’re fortunate enough that we have really good leaders within the group. I suppose the water breaks will have a wee bit extra importance now, that there is one after 17 or 18 minutes in each half, but the majority of preparation has already been done. Am I surprised that the maor foirne is gone? I’m not, to be quite honest.”

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