GAA Football

Academy can help keep Donegal at the top table says boss Declan Bonner

Declan Bonner hopes the appointment of Karl Lacey as head of academy development can help ensure the Tir Chonaill remain competitive for years to come. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Neil Loughran

BRINGING in former footballer of the year Karl Lacey as head of academy development is a “big step” in ensuring Donegal remain a force to be reckoned with for years to come, says Tir Chonaill boss Declan Bonner.

Less than a month after leaving Bonner’s backroom team, it was confirmed earlier in the week that Lacey had taken up a wider role within the county – one which sees him tasked with designing the Donegal academy programme, in collaboration with games development manager Aaron Kyles.

The stated aim is to benefit the development of players and coaches at club and academy squad level, and this is something Bonner has been keen to see for “many years”.

“These talks have been going on for a long number of years and it’s just come to fruition, probably since the first lockdown, over the last nine months or so,” he said.

“I’ve been involved for the last 10 years probably, coming in at that development group from U16s right through into senior so it’s something we’ve been looking at, getting those right structures in place.

“The academy was something we were trying to get set up and it’s great that we’re there now. Karl’s done three years at senior level, he’s a lecturer in sports science at Letterkenny IT so it’s a perfect fit, and it’s a great move from our point of view.

“People come in at 14 and 15 and they’re at different stages of their development, so all of that will be looked at and everyone will get a real opportunity. The structures that will be put in place now will make sure that when these guys are ready to go through to minor and U20, when they arrive at senior football they will have gone through the system.

“Long-term it’s going to be a real positive. It’s a big step forward.”

It is through Kyles’s connections that Donegal are also able to tap into the expertise of Dr Micheál Cahill, who has been appointed as athletic performance consultant.

The Limerick native currently serves as vice-president of performance and sports science at Athlete Training and Health, a sport performance company in Texas.

Cahill also lectures at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) and supervises postgraduate sports science research worldwide at Cardiff Metropolitan University (CMU), where Kyles is also a PhD researcher.

Lacey, Cahill and Kyles will form part of a new academy work group with the Donegal games and coaching staff in implementing these new structures across the county.

The model that has seen Dublin emerge as an all-conquering force at senior level is one which counties across Ireland would love to be in a position to replicate, though doing so without the kind of funding the Dubs have received - or the sponsorship deals they are capable of attracting - remains an enormous challenge.

But Bonner believes there are lessons that can be learned as Donegal, like the rest of the chasing pack, bid to close the gap to the top.

“Dublin set the bar but what they’ve done isn’t just going back the last six, seven years when they’ve been winning senior All-Irelands.

“Prior to that they got their underage structures in place, John Costello was the man driving it on at that stage going back 15 odd years ago, they got the coaches in… it costs money. Dublin have invested that well in their youth and with their academies.

“For us, this is going to take time but in terms of the long-term future of Donegal being competitive at the top end, it’s the right signal to be sending out.”

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