BY CHRIS MCNULTY
ENDA Nolan remembers the days before Karl Lacey’s name was lit in lights at national level.
In Donegal town they’re blessed that they watched his evolution into a triple All-Star.
Nolan managed Lacey at club level for six years at underage level and nurtured that unique talent from his days with the under 12s to the minor grade.
Even then, Lacey stood out.
This Sunday, the classy half-back lines out for the 100th time in a Donegal shirt when he faces Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final. In his 99 previous games in the green and gold, there are no bad performances that stand out.
Lacey is Mr Consistent – and is now rightly regarded as one of the best players ever to have played for the county. Strong arguments could be made for him being the best, such has been his worth to Tir Chonaill.
Nolan isn’t surprised that Lacey’s development has excelled him to this stage.
The signs, he says, were always there.
“What we saw in those days was basically a cut down version of what we are seeing now,” Nolan says.
“There were indicaitons there that he was going to be an excellent player. He was very dedicated and put in a lot of self-practice. His skill level was always top drawer.
“He was predominantly right footed, but he practiced religiously with his left foot in his own time. Once a week or twice a week in training you just don’t get the time for that sort of development.
“Karl was a great leader too and the way he applied himself in matches inspired players even at that level.”
Nolan talks with a great zest of a tussle Karl had in an U14 quarter-final against Naomh Columba in Fintra that marked him out as a special player.
“Gary Kennedy was Glen’s main man in that age group, he was a great player, and himself and Karl really put on a show that night – them going man-to-man was a great spectacle,” he says.
Lacey got the upper hand. Nolan also speaks of another great rivalry Lacey had at underage level that marked him out as a player for all jobs.
“Our great rivals at that time were Killybegs and for either of us to get anywhere we always had to beat the other,” he says. “Killybegs’ main man was Daniel Breslin and Karl was always put in to mark him.
“Karl has been curtailed a lot in firefighting jobs.
“He still gets that job of firefighting with the club as he’s sent to mark the opposition’s best man. When we got him at minor level we tried to give him a more free, advanced role because we always knew him to be a very intelligent player.
“Jim has made a great call in playing him where he does. There was some speculation before the Kerry game that he was going to mark Gooch. I’m glad he didn’t because it meant that he could take the game himself.
“Karl is playing now where he’s best. He is a very creative player. When he went off injured against Dublin last year, you could see the confidence draining from the rest of the team.
“Karl is a leader and the fact that he’s now able to charge forward over the half-way line is great for Donegal.”
Success flowed at underage level for Lacey’s Four Masters. In the seven years from 1996 to 2003, he won seven championship titles with the Tir Chonaill Park club.
Having won the U14 title in 1996 and 1997, they stepped up to win the U16 finals of 1996 and 1997. After they lost the U16 final to Killybegs in 2000, they captured successive minor crowns in 2001 and 2002. Then, in 2003 came the icing on the club’s cake. Lacey played on the Four Masters team and scored two points as Four Masters defeated Termon to take Dr Maguire through ‘The Gap’.
Fr Seán Ó Gallchóir, that great Donegal GAA statistician submitted Lacey’s record two weeks ago. “Just one honour missing,” he noted at the end of Lacey’s glittering honours list.
Now, he’s looking for another Maguire!
Lacey won the 2000 Buncrana Cup and then, two years later, won Ulster and All-Ireland Vocational Schools titles. Eamon McGee was a team-mate of Lacey’s on county teams all up the ranks.
“Even on under 14 Development squads Karl was the main man,” says
McGee. “He was a big player in every age group. He was so far ahead of everyone all up the ages, you could tell from an early age that he was a special player.
“Anything I have won, except for the medals with the club, has been with Karl.”
Time was when McGee was played in the half-back line with Lacey shadowing the forwards from the full-back line.
“Roles have reversed now, but I keep saying that it’s only temporary that he has the number six shirt,” smiles McGee. “I was always the better footballer you see – I might get that All-Star off him yet!”
Mark McHugh is well aware of what All-Star awards mean. After all, his dad Martin won two of them. Martin is also regarded as one of Donegal’s finest ever, but it’s a measure of Lacey’s worth that he’s mentioned in the same breath as The Wee Man.
“He’s one of the best that Donegal has ever had,” says Mark McHugh.
“Whatever job is laid down to him, he has it to a tee. It’s a privilage to play with a player like Karl.
“He is a serious athlete. Hes’s a winner first and foremost.
“He’ll do anything to win. It summed him up in the Kerry game when he kicked that last point and then got back to win a huge ball in our backline. It’s rare that anyone would ever get the upper hand on Karl.”
Indeed, Nolan still tells the kids in Four Masters to follow his lead.
“I tell the children to look at Karl and what he has done. Karl obviously worked away at his game when he was their age and look at what he has done.
“He was so good at underage level that he always had two years at ever age group, maybe three.
“He was, and is, so dedicated.
“Above all, though, he plays the game very smartly – that’s his greatest asset.”
FOUR MASTERS CENTURIONS
ON SUNDAY, Karl Lacey will become the fourth Four Masters player to reach the magical 100 mark for Donegal.
129 – Joyce McMullen
JOYCE played for 12 years for Donegal between 1982 and 1994. An All-Ireland U21 winner with Donegal in ‘82, McMullan was soon drafted into the senior ranks and won Ulster titles with the county in ‘83, ‘90 and ‘92. The ultimate success came in ‘92 when he got his hands on Sam Maguire. An All-Star winner in 1990.
129 – Séamus Bonner
SÉAMUS had two spells with Donegal – the first from 1972-81 and then from 1983-85. Played in the Ulster winning teams of 1972, 1974 and 1983. Moved to the Civil Service in Dublin. His son Kevin has played senior football for Dublin. Séamus was a member of Brian McEniff’s backroom team in 1992.
117 – Barry Monaghan
A REAL fans’ favourite. Monaghan arrived on the Championship stage in 2001 and was there right up to the Ulster defeat to Down in 2010. A serious leg injury ended his year – and ultimately his intercounty career. A former county captain, Monaghan was one of the mainstays of the Donegal team during his time on the scene.