Dublin: 15°C Sunday 26 June 2022

Training with Celtic, coached by Brian Kerr and a sporting journey to managing Donegal

Bonner takes Donegal to an Ulster final showdown with Derry next Sunday.

Donegal manager Declan Bonner celebrates the 2019 Ulster final win with Neil McGee.
Donegal manager Declan Bonner celebrates the 2019 Ulster final win with Neil McGee.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

Sliding Doors Moment #1

DECLAN BONNER IS sitting his Leaving Cert in secondary school in Donegal. The previous March, he had spent the break training with the Celtic first team, alongside Packie Bonner, Danny McGrain, Roy Aitken, Paul McStay and Murdo McLeod.

Manager Billy McNeill – Caesar himself – liked what he saw, and put a contract on the table for the copper-headed lad from the Rosses, who had been captaining the Republic of Ireland Under-17 team from left-back. Up top, they had a beanpole striker known as Niall Quinn.

During the exam, the phone goes in the school. When Bonner reaches the receiver, it is Packie Bonner of Celtic on the other end of the line. McNeill has left and gone to Manchester City. Taken his backroom team with him.

“Davy Hay came in as manager,” recalls Bonner now.

“The first game of soccer that I played was for the first year team at secondary school, that was the first competitive, organised game.

“My family were completely into GAA, my father had no interest in soccer. He played county football but he had no interest in soccer. So once that happened (McNeill left) there was no-one there.

“I wasn’t attached to any club, I played underage for Finn Harps and I played for the Republic U17 team, I was captain at the time. Niall Quinn played in it, Ken De Mange and Brian Mooney.”

Managed by Liam Tuohy, and coached by Brian Kerr, no less.

A few weeks after that, he got back into playing Gaelic football. He had been on the county Under-21 team for a while by that stage. Then Brian McEniff called him into the senior set-up. The rest was history.

Sliding Doors Moment #2

While the country is going doolally over soccer and the cultural explosion of Euro ’88, Declan Bonner is enjoying himself in Boston. Playing a bit of football, working here and there, mainly taking in the scene.

He is there because Donegal were beaten by Armagh in the Ulster Championship.

He wants to stay longer, but gets the distinct feeling he might have already overstayed his welcome from the vibes back home. When he returns, Donegal manager Tom Conaghan decides there is no place in the Donegal squad for Bonner.

So he goes and plays a bit of soccer for Finn Harps. He’s just 23, but still he would be keen to attend the AGM of his club – Na Rossa.

They cannot get a manager for the season. The situation is talked around, up and down and side to side.

And then Bonner says he will do it. Play, and manage.

They end up winning their first-ever Donegal intermediate championship.

Brian McEniff comes back in as Donegal manager. Bonner is called up. He parks the management for a bit.

Sliding Doors Moment #3

In 1995, Donegal are playing Wicklow in Croke Park and Bonner damages his kidney. It is serious enough to prevent him playing football for a year.

His strike partner Tony Boyle has a word. Would he fancy…?

And so, he becomes the manager of Keadue Rovers in the Donegal amateur leagues. He goes on a recruitment drive. He has Boyle himself up front. Boyle’s brother Ben. Bonner’s own brother, Sean. Ollie Reid of the Donegal 1992 team plays, along with other notable figures such as Brendan Gillespie of Fanad and Martin Doherty of Glenties.

They won the Donegal league. They get as far as the All-Ireland Junior semi-final and travel to Dublin to face Clondalkin. They lose 4-3.

Exclusive NZ - IRE
Rugby Analysis

Get Murray Kinsella's match analysis and Garry Doyle's updates from New Zealand exclusive to members

Become a Member

Sliding Doors Moment #4

The year is 1997. Donegal have lost to Cavan in the Ulster championship. Brian McEniff steps down, not for the first or last time, as Donegal manager.

A couple of other candidates put the hand up for it initially, but pull out soon after once Bonner enters the fray. He is appointed the Donegal senior manager. Some of his players are going to be older than him. A lot of them won an All-Ireland alongside him just five years previous.

He has two children, one aged two, the other just coming up to their first birthday.

He accepts the job on his 32nd birthday.

Sliding Doors Moment #5

The first year Bonner is in charge, they look to be heading to an Ulster title. That is, until Joe Brolly finds the net for Derry in injury-time. Derry are the 1998 Ulster champions.

Sliding Doors Moment #6

Rory Gallagher lobs Tony Blake to propel Fermanagh to an Ulster semi-final in 2000. They have beaten Donegal in Ballybofey. Declan Bonner steps down.

Sliding Doors Moment #7

May 29th, 2022. Declan Bonner is taking charge of his fifth Ulster final. He has led Donegal to two titles so far. He looks down the line before throw in. There’s Rory Gallagher. And there’s Derry on the pitch.

Small world, Ulster football.

About the author:

Declan Bogue

Read next:


This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel