Ulster final won't be decided until the final straight says Donegal manager Declan Bonner
THE Ulster Championship final won't be decided until the final sprint for the line, predicts Donegal manager Declan Bonner.
A veteran of Ulster finals against north-west neighbours Derry in 1992 and 1993 (Donegal lost the first but won the second on the way to the Sam Maguire) Bonner has been impressed, but not surprised, by what he's seen from the Oak Leafers this year.
With the exception of forward Oisin Gallen who remains “a week or two” away from fitness, Bonner will have a full deck for the Clones clash and he says it'll be ‘all hands on deck' in the Anglo-Celt decider on May 28.
“We knew Derry were definitely going to be competitive,” he said.
“We played them last year so we were under no illusion, they are a decent side and had a good League campaign. They really performed the first day out against Tyrone in the Championship and I suppose people were asking if they could back it up the next day. And the answer was a resounding ‘yes'.
“Listen, they have put two of the favourites (Tyrone and Monaghan) out of the competition and we know that it is going to be a huge challenge and we will need to be at the best of our performance levels to clinch that Ulster title.”
It took a late Paddy McBrearty point to separate the teams in a dramatic quarter-final last year. Four minutes were added on in Ballybofey and the fourth was completed just as the ball sailed over the Derry crossbar from 40 yards off McBrearty's left boot.
“They are a team that is well organised,” said Bonner.
“They are energetic and have a number of top-class players. Derry football always had that. Their underage systems always had that, their schools were powerful.
“They are organised and they are difficult to play against. There's no doubt that it is going to be a difficult challenge. Tyrone and Monaghan are not easy to get over in Championship football and Derry have done that so we are well aware of that challenge and task ahead.”
Bonner and his players will also be aware of the occasion that awaits the teams at Clones. Derry manager Rory Gallagher will too but his players are new to the razzmatazz that goes with an Ulster final. Bonner says experience is an advantage, but he knows experience alone won't win his county an Anglo-Celt Cup.
“It's up to the experienced players to deliver a performance on the day,” he said.
“That's what is required. We have been there, it's a great place to be, the Ulster final, but it is only a great place to be when you go up those steps and collect the Anglo-Celt.
“We have been on both sides of that and we are well aware of that. To me, it is going to be a fascinating game, there's no doubt and it will go down the final straight. I think the bench, the guys coming off the bench the last 20, 25 minutes, is going to be crucial. It's up to those guys to make the telling contribution.”
Covid regulations restricted the attendance in Ballybofey last year but Clones will be packed for this year's meeting and Bonner welcomes a return to the colour and atmosphere of the Ulster final.
“This is going to be back to what we are used to, hopefully the weather is going to be good and a packed Clones. No better place to perform than an Ulster final in Clones,” he said.
“It's where you want to be, and I am sure no kid in Derry, or Donegal thinks differently: It's the Ulster final in Clones.”