By Niall Gartland
DECLAN Bonner has been tasked with doing what Tyrone and Monaghan have failed to do in recent weeks, and that is one-upping his Derry counterpart Rory Gallagher.
The Donegal manager has won two Ulster titles as manager (in 2018 and 2019) but it’s Gallagher who’s the talk of the country after leading Derry to their first Ulster final appearance since 2011.
But you’d imagine that Donegal won’t be ill-prepared for this game (it’s nearly three weeks since they got the better of Cavan in the semi-final), and half the battle will be keeping the supremely well-organised and disciplined Derry team from opening up an early lead.
Bonner said: “That’s the case in any games you play and you always want to make a good start. Derry have started well in both of their games and got into leads.
“It’ll be a factor. It won’t determine the outcome, but you always want to make a good start. This game will last 70-plus minutes.”
“Derry play with a lot of energy and counter-attacking football. They get bodies back behind and the turnovers are a big part.
“There’s always quality coming through the ranks in Derry. They’re a dangerous animal. Tactics will be one element but the energy of the players will be important too.”
Donegal have been imperious in the provincial arena over the last decade, but they’ve suffered a few body-blows in recent years.
The 2020 final defeat to Cavan was a bit of a disaster, frankly, and last year’s semi-final loss to Tyrone was just as sore in its own way (this was during the Covid years when the safety net of the backdoor was dispensed with). They’ve taken stock and Bonner firmly believes they’re moving in the right direction.
“We feel we’ve improved. We probably need more consistency around it. We have been consistent in Ulster. It’s a difficult province, a real province.
“Any one of five or six teams can win it and now we’re down to Derry and Donegal. A lot of good teams have gone. From our point of view, we’re moving in the right direction. We’ve young lads like Shane O’Donnell and Conor O’Donnell who have come in and added to it.”
The Oakleafers feel like they left last year’s Ulster Championship clash against Donegal behind them – they were undone by a late Paddy McBrearty wonder-point. They seem to have gone to another level this year, but Bonner knows the potential was always there and it was just a matter of harnessing it.
“As we found, they are a team that is well organised. They are energetic and 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. It’s no doubt that it is going to be a difficult challenge.”
Bonner also has vivid recollections of not only coming up against Derry as a player (they beat Derry in the 1992 final but it was a role reversal the following season) but as a young manager in 1998.
“I played two and managed in 1998. They were north-west derbies and huge occasions. We played them in 1993 in horrific conditions. It should never have taken place. There was a bad injury in the minor game.
“There were mammoth battles. At that time both teams were at that top table. We won the All-Ireland and they went on to do it the year after.
“There was always a real edge in the league, McKenna Cup, you name it. Derry going into Sunday, they are the form team. They beat two good teams. There was a great rivalry down the years but that won’t have much of an impact on Sunday.”