May Winner – Karl Lacey
‘I WAS absolutely disgusted with that’, says Karl Lacey, the moment clearly still troubling him. Last month when Donegal toppled Derry, the four-time All-Star and 2012 Footballer of the Year was back on song. 2013 came and went with Lacey’s body and mind not able to reach the high gears that had taken him to the top of the mountain the previous summer.
There were even fears that the toll had been too much. Right on cue, though, Lacey was in the groove and, to illustrate the point, provided a Man of the Match display against the Oak Leaf. Yet, it tells us much about the man that from a day when Donegal sent out a timely message to their rivals, one incident sticks out for Lacey.
It was a game during which he was involved in so many of the highlights, but it is the 63rd minute point by Derry’s Mark Lynch that wedged in the mind. “Thankfully it didn’t have an impact on the game,” he says. “The main thing is keeping an eye on my man. Mark Lynch got a point near the end of the game – I was absolutely disgusted with that.
That’s the way it goes sometimes. “It’s just about trying not to let the boys down. You do your own job well and build on from that.”
The Donegal town man, based in Limerick these days where he’s undertaking a Masters in Sports Performance at UL, has played a number of roles for Donegal. In 2006 and 2009, he won All-Stars as a man-marker who was like a sticking plaster on some of the country’s best forwards as Donegal reached All-Ireland quarter- finals.
By 2011, he had evolved into a rampaging centre-back. At Celtic Park, Lacey was earmarked as the best-suited Donegal man to put the shackles around Lynch, whose performances in the National League had caught the eye. That Lacey managed to curb the Derry skipper’s influence as well as contributing so much to his team’s attack, including scoring a first-half point, says much about his value.
He says: “The role I was given was to keep an eye on Mark Lynch. The way the game panned out, it’s just natural in me to want to get forward and get on the ball. It’s something I like doing in games. It isn’t a demand of what I’m asked to do – it’s just my own natural instinct to get forward.” For Lacey, the aim of the game is perfection. Think of the delivery into Michael Murphy early in the 2012 All-Ireland final for the Glenswilly man’s netbuster.
For a defender so often assigned to shadow the dangerman on the opposition, Lacey’s discipline is almost exemplary, his tackling so precise. In Derry, there was the magnificent dispossession from Niall Holly that started a move which ended in a score for Anthony Thompson. It was not a once-off. The 29-year-old says: “When you’re a defender, you need to know how to tackle.
In training over the last few years it’s something that I have focussed more on in drills. I focus on the tackle a lot. Yeah, it’s something that I’m always working on. It’s not perfect, but I work hard at it. “It is key now because every team has free takers who can pop over scores from 50-55 metres and you’ve ‘keepers coming up now who are every bit as accurate as the forwards. The way I see it, if you aren’t conceding frees with the tackles the less chance there is of conceding a score.”
Since the Ulster final of 2004, Lacey put together a remarkable run of 41 consecutive Championship appearances for Donegal – until a knee injury forced him to miss last year’s Ulster semi-final against Down. He had played the final 28 minutes of the win over Tyrone in Ballybofey.
It had been the first glimpse of him in action after he went under the knife to correct a hip problem late in 2012 knee surgery; the distressing sight one October afternoon in 2012 of Lacey having to be helped from the O’Donnell Park pitch during a Donegal SFC game between Four Masters and Naomh Conaill still haunting. As he prepares for a semi-final against Antrim, he looks as lean as ever.
“I’m in a good place at the minute,” he says. “Jim and I talked a lot about the recovery. We got a plan in place from November, December. From that time we looked at Derry as the key game for the year. I was eased into the National League, there was no going flat out. I got the training and game time that I needed. Between the League and the Derry game we trained really well.” So much went wrong for Donegal after they capture Sam, but Lacey believes that they’re back in control of their destiny again.
“There are things that you need to beat the top teams,” he says. “ You need your strength, your speed and your sharpness to be on top form. Last year we didn’t really get that chance and that was a major factor. “We gave the best we could with the shape we were in, but we didn’t have the freshness or the training to prepare.
Every man gave everything that he had and we gave every bit of energy that we had, but unless you have the work done, it won’t happen. There is no magic dust for a sprout of energy when you’re in Croke Park.”