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Bonner is as driven as ever to serve Donegal

 

By Declan Bogue

Two Sundays ago, Donegal manager Declan Bonner had just finished up a training session in Ballybofey when his phone buzzed.

The name of Pat Caulfield, manager of Na Rossa flashed up. "Where are you, we are really struggling?" was his question. He didn't wait for a reply before asking Bonner if he wouldn't mind standing in goal for their league game.

Bonner had other plans. Donegal duties had tied him up all weekend and he wanted to do something with the family, but he played. "Of course," he says.

And so, at the age of 52, minus the famous orange blaze of hair in his prime and a week on from leading Donegal to the Ulster title, Bonner kept a clean sheet as they went down 0-11 to 0-6 to Burt. A week later, he kept his place against Buncrana.

That's the way it is with his life. He might well be the oldest man playing senior football in Ireland - 20 years after he was the Donegal senior manager for the first time.

He is without a doubt the only current inter-county manager who is also chairman of his club, a role he has maintained for the last seven years.

This Saturday, he goes to the other end of the spectrum in Gaelic football. Few challenges ignite players and management more than facing Dublin in Croke Park, Hill 16 rocking - the same Hill that Bonner silenced with his fourth and the final point of the 1992 All-Ireland final.

And given the back and forth between Donegal and Croke Park officials over the issue of Dublin getting two home games in this Super 8s series, the Hill will be in full voice come Saturday night.

Had the cards have fallen differently, his sporting life might have been quite different. When you consider his age, he might have been one of the immortal gods of Italia '90, only for Billy McNeill's urge to test himself as a manager away from Celtic.

Bonner had never played an organised game of soccer before he attended Rosses Community School at 13. Two years later, playing centre-half, they won an All-Ireland. He became immersed in the International underage system and somehow, given the historic favouring of Dublin-based players, Bonner ended up as captain of the Republic of Ireland youth team, managed by Liam Tuohy.

"So I went over to Celtic, Packie Bonner was breaking into the first team then, around about 1982 or '83," Bonner recalls.

"I was over on around three different occasions and on the last one, which would have been around Easter, before I went back for my Leaving Cert, Billy McNeill called me into the office and said, 'Listen, we are going to give you a two-year contract. Go away and do your exams and report for pre-season. Off you go!'

"So that was my plan for the foreseeable future. I went back and was playing with my own club, anything that was going. And around about the last couple of days of my exams I got a phone call through to the school to say that McNeill had taken a job offer at Man City and was talking all his staff with him. So that was that!"

Years later when the Donegal squad were toasting that '92 All-Ireland, they fetched up for a game at Parkhead. McNeill was there, recognised that distinctive Bonner hair and the two talked about old times to the astonishment of the other Donegal players.

Yet he didn't have time to dwell on how the Celtic move faltered. Later that summer of 1983, Brian McEniff led Donegal to an Ulster title and Bonner was called into the squad for the following pre-Christmas league campaign. His brother Sean had captained the Under-21s from full-back the year before, and played in the 1991 Ulster final.

Another, Michael, had played minor and Under-21 before a cruciate injury ended his career, and it was the same for younger brother Eoin, who ruptured his cruciate twice before he was 20, finishing him.

His story has always been tangled with and knotted to the club.

Occasionally he will find himself on the road, dashing between appointments as area sales rep for drinks company Findlater, his mind drifting between work and kickout strategies for Donegal goalkeeper Shaun Patton when he might find himself doing an audit of his own kickouts.

The reverie will be interrupted by a call over a club matter; a leaking dressing room tap, a coach making sure they have the pitch booked later for a slot.

At 22, he put a summer down in Boston but was in no rush home to join Tom Conaghan's county panel, so he was set adrift. He took over as Na Rossa player-manager and they won the county Intermediate title.

"If you look at a picture of the overall Rosses, it would have been a great sporting area," Bonner says, pointing to the declining fortunes of Naomh Mhuire and Dungloe, who they amalgamate with for underage tournaments.

"We all played on that team and then we ended up playing senior for maybe ten years. We are back playing junior now and in Division Three.

"It's just trying to keep the club alive now at the minute.

"The reason I had to stay on (as chairman) is because we have a development project, trying to get another pitch up and running next year.

"It's going to be very difficult for us to get a team to play on it. That's the sad reality of it. We just don't have the numbers; emigration, lower numbers in families, there is no employment in the area, it is a very small, small area."

All of that feels like a world away from the scenes of June 24, as Bonner became only the third manager to lead Donegal to an Ulster title.

He only got back into management after he was leaving off his son Christian to a south Donegal Under-15 Development Squad in 2011, and manager Paddy Hegarty asked him to come in and lend a hand.

Christian is living it up in Chicago for the summer, over playing ball with a crew of his fellow students from UCG.

His daughters both study medicine in the same seat of learning, but Amara cut short her summer in Chicago to be in Clones, while Ariana rounded off 800 kilometres walking the Camino de Santiago to reach the Rosses the night before the game.

There between them and Bonner's wife Catherine in Clones was his youngest son Cillian, a 14-year-old already showing promise with two codes and registered with Finn Harps. Left-footed too.

Last Sunday night, with the body feeling stiff from keeping the ball kicked out to Buncrana in a heavy defeat, he loosened up in the only way he can. After all this time, Bonner is still addicted to the feeling of striking and catching a football.

"We were out the back of the house kicking ball and that's what you do. It doesn't go away. As long as you are fit to do it, as long as the body is fit to do it…"

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