THE FOUR month shutdown halted Declan Bonner in his tracks, just when he felt as if Donegal were beginning to click.
Donegal were readying for an Allianz League game with Tyrone in Ballybofey when they rug was pulled from under them in March.
The Ulster Championship clash of the two was subsequently postponed and the calendar utterly altered.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought its challenges, although Bonner feels that is squad will be ready when their action resumes again in October. Although a full club championship series will have him biting the fingernails between now and then, as things stand his panel is in good health again.
The likes of Paddy McGrath, Stephen McMenamin, Oisin Gallen and Jason McGee are poised to taste action with their clubs having been on the treatment table when time paused.
The qualifiers have been removed for this year meaning Donegal-Tyrone is now a winner-takes-all clash.
“Tyrone will be huge,” Bonner told Donegal Daily/Donegal Sport Hub this week.
“Is it a bigger match now than it was in May? Possibly. It was huge on the 17th of May and it’ll still be huge now on October 31 as well – and the safety net is gone.
“We also have to get ready for two League games too (Tyrone and Kerry) It will be a strange feeling. You’ll go straight into three huge games. The Championship game is a huge event. It’s straight knockout and it takes me back to my own playing days. I had a few summers of experiencing a defeat in the first game and the summer being over. That was it after a few months of training and there was nothing.”
Bonner is of the opinion that an open draw format should’ve been adopted for a one-off basis this year.
The Donegal manager said: “I do believe the GAA missed a trick. If ever there was a chance of an open draw, this was the year. Maybe they were scared of it being a huge success and they wouldn’t have been able to go back again, I don’t know. There was an opportunity there, with everything that was going on, to go for a straight knockout open draw.”
Bonner felt that an interview on The Sunday Game by GAA President John Horan in May added an unnecessary sense of unease to the landscape.
Horan said on the programme: “I can’t see it happening to be quite honest. If social distancing is a priority to deal with this pandemic, I don’t know how we can play a contact sport.”
Bonner said: “I was very disappointed. It was very deflating. Part of my job was keeping lads motivated. I had the feeling that we would play, but when John Horan came on The Sunday Game, it was a real downer.
“There was a wee bit of hope and that cleaned it away. That had happened a couple of times where you felt some hope and then another ‘expert’ appeared to burst the bubble. That interview by John Horan took a lot of hope away and it was hard to keep momentum going.”
It has been a challenging period as a manager and, even now, it is with a certain degree of disbelief that Bonner reflects on the experiences and challenges.
“It hasn’t been easy,” he said.
“You’d need to break it into three stages. Initially, we didn’t know what was going to happen or if we’d get back playing at all – at that stage we were still hoping to have a Championship game in May so it was easy to keep the players motivated.
“Everything kept getting pushed back and then stage two was difficult. It didn’t look like there’d be any football and we were trying to keep in contact with lads who were on programmes. We saw an opportunity then to do something different and something positive in the community, but still as a group.
“We came into stage three, where we are now, with restrictions starting to ease and a roadmap was laid out. You could feel it again, at those meetings the players started to feel as if we were going to get back.”
While meetings via Zoom became popular – ‘it became part of our daily lives’, Bonner says – the Donegal boss is looking forward to getting his players back in the one group setting again.
He said: The power of meetings is in the room when you have eye contact and you have the group together. There is no doubt it has its uses, but it can’t take away from the power of the meeting.”
This Sunday, the Donegal senior football players, management and backroom team embark on a unique charity cycle this Sunday. The squad will leave nine different locations on Sunday morning with all groups arriving to Sean Mac Cumhaill Park at around 4.30pm.
All 39 football clubs in Donegal will be visited by various groups during the course of the day – and it’s all in the name of raising money for Olivia ‘Livie’ Mulhern. The ‘Better Life for Livie’ campaign aims to raise over $2million for potentially life-saving treatment for 10-month-old Livie, who is suffering from Spinal Muscular Atrophy.
A GoFundMe page has been set up, TeamDonegal4TeamLivie and you can donate here – https://www.gofundme.com/f/teamdonegal4teamlivieTags: