It’s said if you’re once bitten you’ll be twice shy, so Declan Bonner has reason to be tentative as Donegal head to nearby Celtic Park in Derry well-tipped to win Sunday’s Ulster SFC quarter-final.
Donegal showed well in their rather timid but effective 2-20 to 1-15 win over Cavan in the preliminary round and are boosted by the returns of Paddy McGrath and Odhran MacNiallais.
But Bonner has been on the receiving end from the Oak Leafers as both a player and manager down the years.
Whilst a 14-man Donegal, with Bonner a flame-haired corner-forward, produced one of their greatest provincial performances in the unexpected sun-stroked 1992 Ulster final win over Derry on their way to a first All-Ireland, the scene in Clones a year later was starkly different.
The 1993 final was on a quagmire pitch under a lingering grey sky; one of those days the camera man spent more time wiping the lens than following the ball, which was often plugged in the marsh as bodies piled in.
“And Donegal are still All-Ireland champions,” repeated Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh, with an umbrella selflessly held over his head by a young Mark Kellett on an open trailer by a half-built Gerry Arthurs Stand, time and again on RTÉ Radio after every score late in the match.
Ó Muircheartaigh’s utterances soon ceased, as did Donegal’s reign as Ulster and All-Ireland champions. Eamonn Coleman’s Derry, 0-8 to 0-6 winners, would fill both thrones.
After 1993, Donegal would not be back in the provincial final until 1998, with Bonner, 38, in his second year as senior manager. Again, it was Derry in the opposition corner.
Donegal looked on the brink of glory. But following a long ball in by Anthony Tohill, Geoffrey McGonigle gave Noel McGinley the slip and Joe Brolly scored a Derry goal with a minute to play. It finished: Derry 1-7 Donegal 0-8.
A certain eight-year-old then was attending his first ever championship match.
“It was a bad day at the office,” current Donegal captain Michael Murphy, who admits his young eyes welled up, says of 1998. “I was sitting at the 13m line looking in as Geoffrey McGonigle did his business and Joe Brolly did his. It was a quiet trip home.”
Even when Bonner was Donegal minor manager, he felt the bite. In 2014, Donegal won Ulster and lost out only to Kerry on All-Ireland final day and then, in 2015, Donegal swashbuckled the Ulster Minor League, hammering Derry 4-18 to 3-11 in the group and then 2-14 to 1-11 in the final.
Even though red-hot favourites in the Ulster MFC semi-final that June, Donegal were undone, again, when it was least expected. Conor Glass gave a masterclass at centre-field for Derry, as Donegal’s Conor Doherty ballooned a last-minute penalty over the crossbar and the underdogs sealed an 0-11 to 0-10 win.
Damien McErlain was Derry minor manager that day, just as Bonner was in charge of Donegal.
On Sunday, they’ll be in opposite dugouts again. Again, Donegal are favourites. Again, they are wary; even though Derry were relegated to Division 4 this season.
Slaughneil’s Chrissy and Karl McKaigue, Brendan Rodgers, Paul McNeill, Shane McGuigan and Padraig Cassidy are back having spent more time with club than county, so Derry’s apparent fall mightn’t be as steep as some might think.
Bonner agrees: “Derry have a half a new team basically with the six Slaughtneil lads and Sean Leo McGoldrick to come back. Throughout the National League, Damien’s hands were tied when it came to team selection.
“The club scene in Derry is very strong all you have to do is look at Slaughtneil, they have been the best team in Ulster for the last five years. We have a job to do to get us over the line.”
Derry’s bark isn’t quite so loud, but Donegal and Bonner must be ready for their bite.
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