Ulster Football Final: “Not best buddies” – the Bonner-Gallagher dynamic

Rory Gallagher shakes hands with Declan Bonner during the closing stages of the 2018 Ulster Final between Donegal and Fermanagh
Rory Gallagher left the Donegal job in August 2017 and took charge of Fermanagh a year later when they were beaten by Declan Bonner’s Tir Chonaill men in the Ulster final
Venue: St Tiernachs Park, Clones Date: Sunday May 29th throw in: 16:00 CET
Cover: Watch on BBC Two NI; Live text commentary, match report and highlights on the BBC Sport NI website

Ulster Final fighters in Donegal and Derry inevitably bring back memories of Titanic scuffles in the early 1990s, but Sunday’s competition has an added element given the men in charge of their respective squads.

1992 All-Ireland hero Declan Bonner took over as Donegal boss for a second time after Rory Gallagher abruptly stepped down from the role after a disappointing 2017 season.

The story between the two men includes the Belleek man – a wonderfully talented player who still holds the Ulster SFC match record for a 3-9 win over Monaghan in 2002 – cheekily scoring a match-winning goal for Fermanagh pitched in an Ulster quarter-finals in 2000, which was the last game of Bonner’s first spell in charge of Donegal.

Gifted GAA writer Gerry McLaughlin describes their relationship as “they wouldn’t be best friends.”

McLaughlin, who also lives in Belleek, his first encounter with Gallagher was with a “10-year-old who wears an earring,” while the Donegal-born journalist’s love for his native county means he embraces every twist and turn of Declan Bonner and in fact, every other celebrity has followed The Tir Chonaill footballer’s career for over four decades.

It was perhaps no coincidence that the two managers were absent from the other at last week’s final pre-province press conference organized by Ulster GAA, with Bonner already gone and on his media duties when Gallagher showed up in Strabane.

A photo op with the two smiling managers exchanging a few words while the trophy is tantalizingly in front of them is usually a must, but on this occasion it shouldn’t be.

Gallagher’s Donegal miss out on Ulster title

Under Gallagher, Donegal were within a ball shot of winning both the 2015 and 2016 Ulster Finals, with Monaghan edging out Michael Murphy and company 0-11 to 0-10 before going 0-13 on Tyrone’s late show 0 won. 11 win six years ago.

After that loss, Donegal’s GAA board nonetheless opted to grant Gallagher a further three-season extension, but within a year the county was looking for another boss as the Belleek native resigned after heavy Championship losses to Tyrone and Galway.

Donegal had entered the 2017 campaign without the experience of Colm McFadden, Neil Gallagher and Eamon McGee after they resigned following last summer’s All-Ireland quarter-final loss to then-dominant Dublin.

With Rory Kavanagh quitting in early 2015 and a number of other players falling out of the squad, Gallagher faced a major rebuild, although he still had two years left on contract and was heavily criticized after the 2017 season – inevitably including Vitriol on social media – he made the decision to resign.

It was a sad end to Gallagher’s time in Donegal, which included playing a big part in the county’s All-Ireland triumph in 2012 when he was Jim McGuinness’s assistant.

Gallagher’s partnership with McGuinness dissolved after a disappointing 2013 season, but after Donegal lost the All-Ireland final to Kerry in 2014, the county turned to the Fermanagh man to fill the vacancy left by the Glenties’ decision -Mannes was left to fully devote himself to his football role at Celtic.

Declan Bonner shouts instructions to his Donegal players
Declan Bonner seemed critical of Gallagher’s former regime when he took over as Donegal chief in September 2017

“Too one-dimensional and predictable”

But by September 2017, Bonner was back in power and seemed in no mood to lavish too much praise on the previous regime as he gave his mission statement on what he hoped to achieve with Donegal the second time around.

“The future in Donegal is bright but a lot needs to change,” Bonner said on the night he was officially unveiled, a few months after leading the county U21s to an Ulster title and building on held the managerial inventory of his small team’s provincial triumph in 2014.

“We’ve taken a step or two back in the last couple of seasons and we have to look at that. We have to adapt.

“We’ve become too one-dimensional and too predictable and that will require work on the training ground.”

Gerry McLaughlin warns that we risk reading too much into Bonner’s seemingly critical judgment of Gallagher’s reign.

“Bonner was a new manager coming in and he definitely wanted to put his stamp on things,” says Gerry, whose status as one of the GAA’s true Renaissance men is confirmed by his recent publication of a book of poetry entitled The Breed. only further underscored was of Me’, which describes his love for family, the GAA, his place and the written word.

“Rory Gallagher had an excellent reputation. In the eyes of many people, he was the guy who did the nuts and bolts to lead Donegal to that All-Ireland title. Things have been a bit bad for him now, especially in 2017.

“Like the bull in the field that marks its territory”

“One thing about Declan Bonner is that he’s very direct. If he has something to say, he says it. He didn’t want to say ‘Rory did a brilliant job’.

“And he knew all the players from when he was with Donegal under-16s and underage and under-20s and wanted to put his stamp on that.

“This is Declan. Like the bull in the field marking his territory. This is how Donegal will play. There is a new man in charge.”

Gallagher’s time as Donegal manager also coincided with Bonner’s three-year tenure with what was then the county’s under-21 side and there were disputes between the two men over the availability of players, although McLaughlin points out such tug-of-war over staffing is commonplace .

“Declan has complained several times about not having any players available for Rory.

Sir Alex Ferguson applauds Roy Keane after his testimonial in 2006
Gerry McLaughlin says Rory Gallagher has the same single-minded focus that brought Sir Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane to Manchester United

“Rory’s a little bit Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane, he’s just focused on what he wants. He’s very inconsiderate. He wants to win.

“The under-20s would have been a distraction. But that kind of attitude wasn’t unique to Declan or Rory. You could chat with 20 managers across the country and that kind of dynamic would be there. The senior team will always come first and that’s quite understandable.”

In terms of understanding Gallagher’s mentality, McLaughlin says the Derry manager’s mindset is “a copy” of that of his father Gerry, who guided Fermanagh to All-Ireland U21 Finals in 1970 and 1971.

“Gerry is a real leader. He led Ballygawley to a Tyrone County Championship final in 1989 and Mickey Harte was on that team and Gerry was the reason our club at Belleek won two county championships.

“He is totally obsessed with football. Gerry could never understand why people didn’t have the same passion and quick thinking as he did.

“The other side of the family also has a great football pedigree. Rory’s mother Deirdre Kavanagh hails from Ballygawley and her brother Eamonn, who played for Omagh Town and many clubs, was one of the best strikers at a ball you’ve seen From there Rory has the kicking skills.

“My brother-in-law Seamus Kelm, the father of Fermanagh footballer Ultan Kelm, said Rory Gallagher was the smartest kid to go to St Davog’s Primary School in Belleek and I believe it.”

“Train her like a basketball coach”

In the context of football, McLaughlin says Gallagher’s intelligence is best exemplified by the way he micromanages his players — even during the white heat of league games.

BBC Sport NI’s Orla Bannon also remarked on this during the first half of Derry’s stunning win over Tyrone four weeks ago “All that could be heard in the stands at Healy Park was Gallagher giving instructions to his players as if they were pieces on a chessboard”.

“If you listen to him on the sidelines, he coaches you like a basketball coach. He tells you where to be and micromanages like all great managers,” adds McLaughlin.

Gallagher, who has already made history after becoming the first man to lead three counties to an Ulster final, will be able to lead Derry to his first provincial triumph as Big Chief after defeating Jim McGuinness in the years assisted in 2011 and 2012?

We will know next Sunday evening.

Suffice it to say that we have been looking for side businesses.

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