By Frank Craig
Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.
When Declan Bonner first spotted the obvious footballing potential of this particular group three seasons ago, he knew straight away that other provisions needed to be put in place if they were to fulfill that early promise.
A county Minor jersey is the Holy Grail for every underage footballer. And that was the target for Bonner even then – to have this collection of then 15-year-olds ready by the time the 2014 campaign rolled by.
Donegal’s record at this grade in recent seasons has been dismal with 2006 the last time the county appeared in a provincial decider when the likes of Michael Murphy, Martin McElhinney and Leo McLoone were leading lights in a memorable Tir Chonaill win.
Donegal’s success at senior level under Jim McGuinness in 2011 and 2012 must surely also have resonated with Bonner’s cubs who, as impressionable 15 and 16 year olds, could only have looked on in total awe, admiration and even a tad of envy at those memorable Ulster and All-Ireland feats.
But talent needs ambition and that indirect injection of inspiration meant that Bonner’s protégés finally arrived on the Minor scene ready to put their absolute best foot forward. They’d absorbed the information, embraced the strength, speed and conditioning programs that they’d been handed and now it was time to put all that into practice.
Bonner explains: “I became involved at U15 level with the Divisional and Development squads. At U16 level then I took on the Buncrana Cup squad with Jim McGuigan, right through to U17 and now minor. It’s been a good run. It’s ideal in so far as I know them all really well. They know me too now and they know what is expected.
“The one thing we did when we got them in at U17 level was pay particular attention to ‘strength and conditioning’. We’ve done a huge amount of work in that area – particularly in the last six months.
“We’d need to thank the coaches that have worked with the lads. Initially, Paul Fisher set up the program. Since we’ve had Joe Callaghan and Adam Speer working with us at different centres. Barry Dunnion was there in Donegal Town and David McLaughlin in Inishowen. The lads were doing programs three nights a week.
“We changed that every four to six weeks and we’re still doing that. The boys have definitely developed physically and that’s a result of the huge amount of work that has gone into them.”
Up first was the Minor League and Donegal were determined to finally put into practice all that they’d learned on the training ground and built in the gym.
“We set out our stall at the start of the year to have a good look at Ulster in terms of the Minor League,” Bonner explained. “We came through that one step at a time and unscathed. We had a couple of good performances and won the final with victory over Tyrone in Brewster Park with a very good showing.
“The first day of the Championship against Derry… we stumbled a bit in the second-half but over all, it was a decent enough performance and we got over the line by five points.
“Derry had a poor League campaign and with a lot of expectation on this Donegal squad, we went into that match as favourites. We played well enough early on. But the one thing about Derry is that they always have good footballers.
“They didn’t have the Maghera boys in the League and that made up 10 or 11 of their of their Championship team. Therefore, we didn’t pay any attention to their form in the League – we knew they’d be up for it.
“In the second-half they really came at us. We didn’t cope particularly well in that first 15 to 20 minutes. But in fairness to our lads and, in particular the substitutions that came on; they made the difference.”
Armagh come into the decider as underdogs and the Orchard teenagers will be just fine with that. Donegal have built up quite a reputation for themselves already this term with the bookies installing the side as 3/1 favourites behind Kerry (13/8) to eventually go on and lift the All-Ireland title.
Bonner wasn’t even entertaining that statistic and fired this timely warning to an expectant Tir Chonaill faithful.
“I don’t pay any attention that kind of thing. Listen, against Antrim, it was difficult early on and it will probably be the same on Ulster final day against Armagh. We’re going to have to be patient and look to break them down.
“The most difficult half we had this term was Armagh in the League semi-final. We failed to score for 22 minutes in O’Donnell Park that day and it took a late scoring flurry to get us over the line.
“They were very well set up, defensively. They beat a very good Cavan team in the first round of the Championship. They also defeated a fancied Monaghan in the semi-finals. So we’re taking nothing for granted. We know this is going to be a difficult task and the lads are preparing accordingly.
“We’ve had a good couple of weeks in terms of preparation already. We had a good run out against Dublin there in a challenge. The preparations are going really well.
“We have a few lads that have picked up knocks but that’s going to happen. Hopefully, between now and the final, we’ll get a clear run at it. They’ve put a huge amount of time and effort into this and we’re all really looking forward to it
“Cian Mulligan, Ciaran Gillespie and Niall Harley all have wee injuries. But we’re hoping to have them back at training this week.”
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