Donegal under 21 manager, Declan Bonner spoke to Pundit Arena about the county’s prospects in the 2017 senior championship ahead of their opening Ulster SFC tie against Antrim this weekend.
Speculation around the shape Donegal are in ahead of this championship campaign is infested with word that the team is in a period of ‘transition’. That is the natural instinctive analysis of a team that has seen so many of their stalwarts retire over the past couple of seasons. However, there are a dozen of the under 21 squad that clinched provincial honours earlier this year before succumbing to eventual champions, Dublin, in the All Ireland semi-final in with the seniors, providing the panel with a new lease of life.
Bonner is someone who knows these young players better than anyone, having managed them the whole way through from under 15 development squads to under 16, 17, minor, and now under 21. Does he feel the large volume of young talent coming up through the ranks together bodes well for the future of Donegal?
“Yeah, listen, these guys are the future of Donegal, whether this year is going to come a bit too quick for them I’m not sure, but four or five of them are going to start next Sunday and the rest of the guys in there have been training through the national league with the seniors and they’ve done very well for them.
“So, yeah, the future is bright.”
So, is this summer going to come too soon for the stars of the under 21 team to have a telling effect on the senior championship, or do some of them have the capability to take this summer by storm?
“It’s going to be a big ask, some of these lads are still very young.
“Jason Magee is just out of minor last year, and he has big boots to fill in term of replacing Neill Gallagher but he’s been very, very impressive through the national league campaign and also through the under 21.
“Then you’ve the likes of Jamie Brennan, Cian Mulligan, Mícheál Caroll, all those guys are in there in the mix for next Sunday. These guys will definitely not let you down. They’ve been around the Donegal set-up now right through underage and all the way to senior over the last five/six years and they’re ready for the step up.
“While some of them are very young, hopefully it’s not a step too much.”
On Sunday, the general narrative is that the Tír Conaill men have got the ‘handy draw’ in Ulster by being squared off with Antrim. We wanted to know how this would affect preparations in the camp and what the mindset of the team will be like heading into the clash?
“It’s very, very difficult because no matter what you do next Sunday, you’re expected to win the match and win the match well.
“Look, it’s an Ulster championship match and Donegal can only get their house in order and get their performance to the level where it needs to be. They’re not looking past next Sunday but at the end of the day, Antrim are there, they’re a division four side and haven’t done well in the league.
“Expectations are high in Donegal after a good league campaign and you know, we’ve lost the last two Ulster finals, hopefully this is our year, 2017 we can regain that Anglo-Celt Cup.”
Speaking of which, the last two times Donegal have won the Ulster championship they have gone on to reach the All Ireland final in the same year. How important is it to win back that Anglo-Celt Cup?
“I think it’s very, very important. Donegal have had a good record in the Ulster championship over the past six years. We’ve contested six finals, won three and lost three. We’ve lost the last two very, very narrowly and it is a big, big year.
“I know there’s a lot of new faces coming in but the nucleus of the team is still there.
“You still have the experienced players, the likes of Frank McGlynn, Karl Lacey, Paddy McGrath, Michael Murphy, all those guys are still there and playing extremely well. Expectations are very high in Donegal and it’s important that we do go on and win an Anglo-Celt this year.”
For a team supposedly in ‘transition’, what is a realistic target for this group? After a successful national league campaign, where they only missed out on a place in the final by scoring difference, is winning a first Sam Maguire since 2012 the goal, if 2017 is to be seen as an overall success?
“Listen, I think an Ulster title this year would be brilliant and to get a good run at the latter stages of the All Ireland series.
“An Ulster title is going to be important and we’re probably seen as favourites for Ulster along with Tyrone and then Monaghan coming from the other side, so it’s not going to be easy.
“Ulster title and progress in the All Ireland series would be a good summer for Donegal.”
Bonner was speaking on The 16th Man podcast, which can be found below: