THERE was a telling moment in the lecture theatre of the Donegal Training Centre on Tuesday.
It has been six months, but it remains the last reference point; that moment in Armagh when Barry Cassidy’s whistle shrilled and Donegal’s bid for a third successive Ulster Championship went up in smoke.
Conor Madden’s plundered a late goal to secure a first title in 23 years for the Breffni. Donegal, meanwhile, left the Cathedral city with a long, lonely winter ahead.
They return from the Covid-induced hibernation this weekend and Declan Bonner is clearly looking forward.
At a press briefing ahead of Saturday’s Allianz League joust with Tyrone at Healy Park, the questions largely centred on the effects of that defeat.
When one reported probed Donegal defender Paul Brennan on Cavan appearing ‘hungrier’, Bonner interjected.
“Can we move away from the talk about Cavan?” implored the Donegal boss.
“We have moved away from that and we’re moving into what we are doing.”
The defeat stung hard, denying Bonner a provincial three-in-a-row none of his peers had managed, and ending the county’s hopes of getting a crack at Dublin in an All-Ireland semi-final.
The winter, absent of games and with discussions taking place over Zoom, brought change.
Karl Lacey, the four-time All-Star who was a coach regularly manning the touchline alongside Bonner, departed and has not been replaced.
Players Eamonn Doherty and Ciaran Diver have said their farewells, but the services of 2012 All-Ireland winners Neil McGee and Paddy McGrath have been retained.
The mercurial Odhrán Mac Niallais has returned from exile, while Odhrán McFadden-Ferry has come back from a tour of duty with the Defence Forces in Syria. McFadden-Ferry will target next month’s Championship meeting with Down, while Kieran Gillespie is easing his way back from injury hell.
“It’s a new year, 2021, and we are looking forward to it,” Bonner said.
“It is still a relatively young squad, apart from a couple of guys who are over the 30 mark but a lot of the guys are in their mid 20’s so it is a young squad.
“We hope that they will take the learnings from 2020 as they move into 2021. Hopefully they will have a sustained run in the league and championship.
“We are back at it this last number of weeks, these boys have done a huge amount of work on their own since the turn of the year but we have been back together for the past three weeks and we are into our fourth week now and guys are really working hard.”
The post-lockdown sprint saw Donegal scalp Tyrone and Armagh before succumbing to Cavan in the Ulster final in November.
Bonner took a little time to ponder his own position, but the Na Rossa man never really leaned towards stepping away.
He said: “After any defeat you are going to take time out to reflect on what the performance was like, where we could have done better but at the end there was no decision to be made within 24/48 hours directly after a match.
“This is a work in progress but to me this is a really big year for us now. It is difficult in a lot of ways because we are still in the midst of Covid. It is still difficult for the lads playing out there, there is still no spectators.
“It is not where we were in 2018/2019 when we were playing in front of full houses in championship matches but in saying that it is the same for every team so we have got to be ready for that.
“It was a surreal atmosphere in Armagh to be honest, Cavan deserved to win it on the day and that was it. We hope we will take learnings from that but as I say we move on now to 2021.
“Any championship defeat is always tough and it is something you take time out to digest afterwards but once the dust settles…the effort these guys have put in over the last couple of years has been enormous, it has been immense.
“We are moving on to 2021, looking at the challenge ahead and that starts on Saturday night.”
As part of the evolution, with the future in mind, Bonner has created a ‘development squad’ with around ten players, who are not officially part of the set-up, training in parallel to the county squad.
“Bonner explained: “We are always looking at game scenarios and playing 15 v 15. We would bring in players from outside at certain stages to make up the 15.
“These guys are in to do the exact work that the lads on the squad do. They are putting in the work. Some of them will come into the squad at some stage.”
Again, this is a year with a difference. League outings against Tyrone, Monaghan and Armagh take them to the end of May; by which time there will be only four weeks until the Championship’s curtain goes up and they head for The Marshes in Newry.
It’s no wonder Bonner isn’t keen to dwell on what might have been.Tags: