Bonner left it in a better place, but time was right to go
"Declan Bonner left the jersey in a better place when he retired from playing and he left it in a better place in stepping down as manager last night after five years. But the time was right."
FIVE years and two Ulster titles later, Declan Bonner’s mulling upon his future always felt as though it would end up here.
At a county committee meeting last night he announced his decision to step down as manager, forgoing the second year of what was intended to be a two-year term when he was reappointed last autumn.
How do you measure his reign?
You could look at it through two Ulster titles, when only Jim McGuinness (three) and Brian McEniff (five) before him had ever led a Donegal team to the Anglo Celt Cup.
Or you could look at no Ulster title in the last three years, a failure to reach an All-Ireland semi-final and the levelling off of what started out as a very busy upward curve.
Recency bias has turned Donegal minds towards the latter.
When Rory Gallagher stepped down after the 2017 season, Bonner came in for his second term of office 17 years after the curtain was pulled down on the first.
He’d ended back where he started having gone full circle through development squads, county minors and U21s during the noughties.
A controversial late Joe Brolly goal had taken away an Ulster title in 1998, and there was to be an unfortunate symmetry to his second stint.
But it wasn’t just losing to Derry this summer, as hard as that became for them to stomach in light of how the rest of the championship panned out.
It was Derry, it was last year’s semi-final with Tyrone, the 2020 Covid final against Cavan and the pivotal Super 8s losses to Mayo (2019) and at home to Tyrone (2018).
The men from the hills have spent the last 11 years near football’s peak. Their standards have been elevated but so too expectations. The county has quite quickly become blasé about what success is to them.
Even in the unpredictable waters of Ulster, there are occasional straights where a team starts to feel safe.
Mickey Harte spoke a few years back of how Tyrone supporters had gotten into the habit of heading for the car at the final whistle of an Ulster final, as if they were above a pitch invasion now.
Donegal, having been in 10 of the last 12 provincial finals and won five of them, have shown signs of the same fatigue.
Their fanbase was outnumbered by the swollen Oak Leaf glands flooding in to Clones for this year’s final. Four, maybe five-to-one. Something similar in Clones for the Armagh qualifier.
It was uncharacteristic but a sign too that the energy had fizzled out of the natives and that, win or lose, there was no real sense of belief that an All-Ireland was there.
And then Derry won the Ulster title after extra-time, ended up in a pot with Galway, Armagh and Clare vying for a place in the All-Ireland final, and Donegal were left to rue their badly-timed collapse.
The defeat by Armagh unmasked their frailties. Brilliant for 20 minutes, they kicked nine points in that spell and threatened to inflict more damage on a team they’d beaten by seven in Ulster and hammered in a 2019 semi-final that looked an awful lot like the opening of this year’s qualifier.
Then the whole thing fell to pieces, between bad goals and black cards. The sight of Patrick McBrearty and Shaun Patton arguing as they both found themselves benched was telling.
Coming on the back of the call to stand off Derry’s under-pressure kickouts in the Ulster final, losing to Armagh after taking McBrearty off that afternoon felt like the final straw.
In the heat of battle, Bonner had an unexpected call to make. You don’t expect to have your goalkeeper black-carded and to have to take off a forward to compensate. It’s a very rushed call.
But McBrearty had looked very sharp early on, livelier than he had all summer.
It felt like the wrong call at the time, and the Kilcar man made his frustrations known to Patton in a brutally blunt exchange picked up by the cameras.
Donegal went from five points up to seven down in just over 20 minutes. The stomach wasn’t there to claw it back. Season over and, as it’s now transpired, an era too.
Declan Bonner has given an enormous part of his life to Donegal football. First as an All-Ireland winning player, whose performance and decisive score in that ’92 final will go down in legend, he stepped in as manager just four weeks after hanging up his boots. He was 31.
Next month, he’ll be 57. Outside of his family, he’s devoted his life to Donegal and Na Rossa. All of it with the intention of doing good and, for the most part, he succeeded in that.
There’s no doubt the team’s trajectory had tailed off in the last three years.
Having made rapid progression in terms of both results and changing up the style of play, Donegal were seen by many as the only team that could test Dublin in 2019. But they never made it out of the Super 8s, losing on a miserable day in Castlebar, failing to make a semi-final again.
In some ways they became Gaelic football’s version of the Irish rugby team. They would bludgeon and dominate most teams with big men but do it with enough subtlety to convince they’ve the tools for higher plains, only for their internal flaws to come up clear under the x-ray of a quarter-final.
When they got it right, their running game could be devastating. Their angles of running and ingrained hand-passing game could slice teams where they didn’t think there was any skin showing.
But the more time that passed the more predictable they became. They stopped kicking the ball at all, with McBrearty hugging the right wing to play on the loop, Murphy deep, Ryan McHugh man-marked.
Injuries to Neil McGee and Stephen McMenamin didn’t help. They ended up having to play Eoghan Bán Gallagher, who re-established himself as one of the country’s best half-backs this summer, in the corner for the guts of two years just to make ends meet defensively.
Ulster had been conquered though. To see Tyrone win an All-Ireland last year, playing a final in 2018 and beating Monaghan to get there, Derry going close to a final this season, it left inevitable question marks over Donegal’s performances when it really came to it.
Despite Murphy creeping towards the end, 12 of the starting team against Derry were under 28, and almost all in the middle of their 20s, where they’d want them to be.
Despondency seems an ill fit with that.
Declan Bonner left the jersey in a better place when he retired from playing and he left it in a better place in stepping down as manager last night after five years.
But the time was right.