Wednesday 20 February 2019

'I had to break the relationship up a bit with them. They are the guys you are close with'

Karl Lacey has swapped his storied playing days for helping to steer his county back to the top

Karl Lacey: ‘Dublin are beatable, it would take a massive effort but five or six teams on their day could topple them.’ Photo: Declan Doherty
Karl Lacey: ‘Dublin are beatable, it would take a massive effort but five or six teams on their day could topple them.’ Photo: Declan Doherty

Marie Crowe

When the coffee arrives to the table at the Lough Eske Castle Hotel, Karl Lacey pushes away the accompanying biscuit before taking a sip. He may have retired from inter-county football in 2017, but he's still disciplined and fit. He hasn't changed the way he lives his life.

A masters in high performance at the University of Limerick in 2014 exposed him to the world of professional sport and fuelled his passion for coaching.

It set him on a path - and that journey started just weeks after he retired, when Declan Bonner invited him to join his backroom team in Donegal as a coach. Although taking a role in an inter-county set-up seemed a natural next step, Lacey never imagined it would happen so soon after retiring.

"At the time I had just retired and I was involved with the underage development squads," says Lacey. "I wanted to get involved in coaching in some capacity. Whether it was the under six team here at the club, or with the men, or ladies . . . I didn't know, I just knew I wanted to coach.

"From Declan's point of view, I knew a lot of the players and what the system had been like over the last number of years. I was on winning teams and I was there for the bad days too."

The role earmarked for Lacey was specifically to focus on the defensive side of things. He worked with players on a one-to-one basis, looked at the structures and helped devise a game-plan.

Given his vast experience - of good and bad days - the 34-year also helped mentor players as best he could. Of course it was a challenge moving so quickly from player to coach.

"It was difficult at the start because a lot of the players I had played with and had won with were still a big part of it. So instead of playing with them I was going to be telling them what to do and giving them instructions," he says.

"There are a lot of big leaders in that group, Frank McGlynn, Michael Murphy, Neil McGee, Paddy McGrath, all these guys who I played five or six years with and now I'm on the other side of it.

"I had to break the relationship up a bit with them. They are the guys you are close with. They are the guys who if I was going for a coffee, I'd go with, or if I was meeting to talk about things from a player's point of view, we'd be the ones coming up with things and thrashing things out. I had to be away from that group.

"At the start when we were away on training camps it was hard because I'd see the lads heading down the town for coffee and I wasn't sure if I should go with them, but you have to separate things. You still have your relationship with them but it's just different."

Last year was a successful first season for Lacey but also an extremely demanding one. He was shocked by the amount of commitment required to be part of a backroom set-up and also the responsibility that goes with it. So after some reflection, he decided to step away from the role.

"You can put in as much time as you want, it can be 20 hours a week or 60 hours. I'm someone who likes to give my all so it took up a lot of my time. I got a new full-time job in the summer in Letterkenny IT, and then we had our second baby.

"I knew it would take more effort than we'd put in last year to be more successful. I didn't think I'd be able to give it all the time it needed. I had a conversation with Declan and the players, nothing bad happened, I just wasn't able to commit what it needed.

"Stephen Rochford came in then as head coach and then a while after that the conversations opened up again with me and Declan, and I decided to come back."

In between Lacey's leaving Donegal and then returning he was heavily linked with being part of Aidan O'Rourke's set-up when he was in the running for the Roscommon senior football job. Lacey confirmed he had a conversation with the former Armagh footballer but after thinking it over informed him that the role wasn't for him. The former Footballer of the Year was disappointed bandied about in the media as being part of the O'Rourke ticket.

"People can read into things in different ways and people were thinking I ditched Donegal to go to Roscommon. That wasn't the case at all. Donegal is number one for me - it always is. That wasn't the reason to go back to Donegal to prove I did anything wrong. The conversations just opened up again with Declan. I had to get a few things in place around home and work. I had to make sure I had the support of those at home.

"The one thing that was running through my head was how the boys were going to react to me coming back. I asked Declan that. I had some conversations with the senior lads and they understood my situation and then I just stepped back in. There was no bad blood."

Rochford, the former Mayo manager, is head coach in the set-up so Lacey works closely with him. All the management team chip in with their ideas and their opinions and he says they work very well together as a unit.

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Former Mayo boss Stephen Rochford (left) joins Declan Bonner’s Donegal set-up. Photo: Sportsfile

""It's massive for me to be in there watching what the more experienced guys are doing, then taking key things with me and putting them into my diary," Lacey says.

"As a player you had your own corner to look after first, you are focusing on your own game. In coaching you have 30 or 35 players to look after. Different personalities from different areas of the county. Different lifestyles, some working, some in college, some with no jobs.

"I'm working on my own style and philosophy, talking to other coaches. I try and bring as much as I can to the table."

It's helpful of course that he has Jim McGuinness to call on for advice when needed. He says it's inspirational to see the All-Ireland-winning former Donegal manager progress in a sport different to Gaelic football.

"He's a great man to have at the end of the phone but he's a hard man to get too," says Lacey. "It's great to have worked with him, there are things I would take from that time and from talking to him but everyone is different.

"That's the thing about coaching you have beliefs but you still don't know if that's the right way to do things. You are always worrying if you could be doing things better."

Although Lacey is coy when it comes to his hopes for the future, he seems on track to one day take the reins as Donegal manager.

"That's not in my head now," he says. "It's early days but I really enjoy coaching. It's part of the reason I went back to college, it's something I love doing.

"I'd be open to getting involved in other sports, never say never. I love the idea of working in elite high-performance sport. Gaelic football is my area of expertise; I've been involved in it for over 20 years. I've never looked outside that. My family is Donegal too. But the reality is that any senior inter-county set-up is high performance. Our challenge is the resources and facilities."

Lacey is clearly fascinated by elite sport: he has spent time at Arsenal and Connacht rugby. During his year in college in Limerick he also got to see first-hand how Munster operate, as their training base is in UL. He can't help but be envious of the facilities professional teams have at their disposal, especially as Donegal don't even have a dressing room at their centre of excellence.

"I don't see why every county couldn't have decent facilities," he says. "GAA headquarters are generating enough money for some type of investment into it. Even if it was through government grants. I think there is no reason why they couldn't put good facilities in every county. You can't just pick the good teams or the best teams or the highest achieving teams. It has to be the Leitrims, Fermanaghs, Sligos. Keep everything fair.

"We have had a centre of excellence here in Donegal for the last six or eight years but we don't have a dressing room, we have portacabins. It's a centre of excellence with three or four pitches with lights but there are no dressing rooms so you are walking between portacabins. We just can't get money to build them. When you look at the reports from the county boards and the finance for the year, it is a lot of money to run county teams in terms of travel and other expenses.

"It's not anything against Donegal County Board, they are doing their best, but you wonder can Croke Park do more? The time and effort players are putting into the county, they should at least have a dressing room. I can only imagine how much better you would be as a team if you had the facilities. We could be driving to Letterkenny to do a gym session then everyone jumps in the car after that and you are driving 30 minutes to get to a pitch to train.

"There are very few pitches in Donegal that have floodlights; you could count on one hand the amount of pitches you could use in January with floodlights."

In 2014, Lacey's Donegal were the last team to beat Dublin. The Dubs have claimed four titles in a row but Lacey feels Jim Gavin's side aren't invincible.

"They absolutely can be toppled. They are beatable; it would take a massive effort but five or six teams on their day could topple them. They are definitely the top team in the country and have been for the last while; there are loads of different factors that come into that.

"I do believe the finance and investment they have is like any professional team. That does help and I'd argue with anyone who says it doesn't. They have good footballers, there is no doubt about that, they have a huge panel and it is 15 v 15 for 70 minutes. But the investment, finance and structures they are able to put in place all help. They get the best of everything, they don't have to worry about anything."

With the National League on the horizon Lacey is busy preparing for what lies ahead, he's turned a page in the next chapter of his career, and it feels like it will be the first of many.

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