BY CHRIS MCNULTY
ARSENE Wenger, the Arsenal manager, once talked about the traits that make the great footballers stand out from the good ones.
The studious Wenger, using Dennis Bergkamp as an example, mentioned that it was the intelligence.
“Class is of course, most of the time linked to what you can do with the ball, but the intelligence makes you use the technique in an efficient way. What he does, there’s always a head and always a brain. And his technique allows him to do what he sees, and what he decides to do.”
Karl Lacey is a fervent supporter of The Gunners – and will be well aware of Wenger’s comments. In Lacey’s own game, he is a master of intelligence and class.
Think of that stylish point against Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Kerry, the game then ending with the ball in Lacey’s hands just moments later at the other end of Croke Park; or there was that inch-perfect pass into Michael Murphy for the captain’s goal in the final.
Removed from Donegal’s locker at key stages of 2013, those moments of magic by the Four Masters man were voids that just couldn’t be filled.
A hip injury sustained in late 2012 kept Lacey sidelined for the entire National League last year. Cameo appearances in the Championship followed, but the Four Masters ace couldn’t raise the mercury to the dizzy heights of 2012, when he was named as the Footballer of the Year.
Lacey begins a Masters in Sports Performance at University Limerick on Monday and is relishing being back in the green and gold again.
“It was difficult but hopefully we can prove everybody wrong again this year,” Lacey says.
“We don’t want to be known as a one-year wonder. We want to push on and get back up to that level we were at in 2012 and prove a point.
“I am feeling good at the moment. It was a frustrating year for me last year and it is good to get back at it again.
“I have a very good pre-season under my belt and I am happy on that front. I got one full game, 70 minutes, against Armagh in the McKenna Cup, which was great, and then I played 30 minutes against Queen’s. I am feeling good and looking forward to the league starting to get games under my belt.
“Any day you go out on a pitch you want to be the best that you can be and last year we could have been far better. This year we want to be the best that we can be every day we go out.
“That’s it from day one. That’s the way we approached the McKenna Cup and that’s the way we’ll look at the Allianz League.”
The League begins with an away game on Sunday in O’Moore Park against Laois, the home county of his father, Joe, who is a native of Luggacurren, just slightly south-east of Stradbally.
Following their heavy sixteen-point reversal by Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-final, the Donegal squad became determined to bounce back and silence their doubter.
An initial period of concern ended when manager Jim McGuinness confirmed that he was returning to orchestrate their voyage into 2014.
“He’s a massive part of what Donegal have achieved over the last three years. Just to have him back, he wants to prove a point as well,” Lacey says.
“There are question marks over his head too.
“He wants to prove a point that this Donegal team – there is more in us. There’s an Ulster championship in us. He is highly respected by every single player. Unfortunately Rory (Gallagher) is out of the backroom team. That was our of our control but that’s the way you go.
“It’s was unexpected really. We didn’t know as players what was going on until it was actually announced. It was quite a shock but you have to respect the manager’s decision.”
Lacey came on as a substitute against Tyrone in the win over the Red Hands last May in Ballybofey, but a minor knee injury stunted his progress.
He was in the starting line-up for the Ulster final against Monaghan. Donegal were in search of a third Anglo-Celt in a row, but it quickly became apparent that something was amiss. The Farney men were five up by the time Donegal hit their first point, after 32 minutes.
Lacey says: “Every man was trying their best and we just didn’t have it in the legs, didn’t have the endurance and didn’t have the speed or sharpness. You’re looking over at the sideline and asking Jim, ‘what the hell’s going on here?’ Jim didn’t have the answers, that’s just the way it was.
“I suppose our hunger was questioned after it and that was a wee bit frustrating to hear that. The hunger was definitely there. We wanted it; we were going for three in a row, something that was never done in Donegal and would have been legendary status if we’d got it.”
Two weeks later and Donegal headed for Croke Park and an All-Ireland quarter-final with Mayo. It was an ambush.
By half-time Donegal were 2-10 to 0-4 in arrears.
Lacey was called for in the 23rd minute. Even then, he knew it was gone.
“It was by six or seven points by the time I was asked to warm up and I suppose it doesn’t matter at that stage if you’re Superman or whoever you are,” he says.
“I don’t think it was going to make any difference who came on.
“It was just about getting on and doing the best we could, really. Half-time, I remember Jim was saying ‘we’re still in this, we still can win this. He still had the belief that we could go out and put in a big second half. You could just see in guys’ eyes in the dressing-room: ‘How the hell are we going to get this back?’
“That was a bit disappointing. The fight had nearly gone out of us at that stage and Jim was trying to push us on a wee bit and under my three years under Jim I had never seen that happen before.”
A rollercoaster couple of months followed their All-Ireland triumph, but Lacey says that Donegal were considerably behind in their preparations twelve months ago. The season never really got a chance to kick off, although the Tyrone win had given hope.
Some weeks previously Paul Mannion hit a last-minute point in the final game with Dublin to condemn Donegal to relegation.
“I think we simply didn’t get the hard work or training done that you have to do,” Lacey, a four-time All-Star, says.
“Once we came back from the team holiday we spoke about it and we said we’d forget about all that, that it was done and dusted. In fairness to the lads that’s the way it was, but we just didn’t have it in our legs when it came to the games.”
With away games at Laois and Galway to begin their campaign in Division 2, Donegal are feeling upbeat again.
“We have an extra six-week base done now that we didn’t have last year,” Lacey says.
“We have a lot of heavy running done and I feel we are definitely in a much better position than we were last year. That gives us plenty of time to do more tactical and ball work before the league starts, which we didn’t get last year. We are definitely in a much better place.”
With the class of Lacey in tow again, there is collective hope again as the season gets ready for lift off.