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Lacey playing to his strengths by turning defence into attack

Last week Donegal's Karl Lacey and Galway's Finian Hanley exchanged emails. They both work in Ulster Bank, in different branches, and are often in touch. Galway had been sent crashing out of the All-Ireland football championship by Meath in a dramatic qualifier game in Navan so Lacey commiserated with his colleague. They discussed how different life is without football and how difficult it is to find something to fill the void.

Although Hanley's season is now over, Lacey's life still revolves around football. For the last seven months the Donegal player has been up at 6.30 three mornings a week to travel to the gym in Letterkenny for a weights session before work. And every other day he is on the pitch, sometimes twice a day.

This year, training with Donegal has been particularly intense. Jim McGuinness took over from John Joe Doherty and a whole new approach came with his appointment. So far they have only lost one game, an inconsequential league match against Laois. Lacey was injured that day so he has yet to lose a game in the Donegal jersey in 2011.

In April, they were crowned Division Two champions and a month later they beat Antrim in the opening game of the Ulster championship. After the match they faced a lot of criticism over their style of play. They were accused of playing too defensively but Lacey says Donegal weren't worried about the critics -- all that mattered was the win.

"We achieved what we set out to do," he says. "Now we are improving every day, and as we go on we are showing what we do isn't all defensive. We don't want to be like Barcelona, Chelsea or Real Madrid, we will simply do whatever it takes to win."

Donegal have still managed to score 5-30 in three championship games -- not a bad return for a team that plays defensively. But what Lacey did have a problem with was the way television pundit Pat Spillane treated his team-mate Ryan Bradley.

"Ryan got man of the match against Antrim. He'd put down a few hard years with the county team, but he'd never really made the breakthrough. But this year he'd really worked hard to make it into the team and we were delighted for him. He was a happy man that day for getting the award, you could see it from the pictures on RTE and then it went back to studio and Pat Spillane said there shouldn't have been one.

"There were so many people watching, it was embarrassing for Ryan. Pat Spillane said there was no man of the match but they still handed him the crystal, he made a fool out of Ryan. That's what we were annoyed at. Who has Pat Spillane managed? Who is he to say he knows everything? Personally, I don't listen to him; he is doing a job he is getting paid for so let him at it. They have to talk about something."

Even though Lacey is still only 26, he sees himself as one of the older players. And when there is a 17-year-old in the form of rising star Patrick McBrearty on the team, it's an understandable way to feel.

Just a few months ago, Lacey, along with Derry's Kevin McGuckin and a group of other Ulster Bank employees, travelled to Armagh to launch the Irish Vocational Schools football competition. They were greeted by a group of uniformed students for a questions and answers session and after the launch the Ulster Bank representatives signed autographs for the students. McBrearty was one of the students there, in his uniform, asking the questions, and now barely three months later he is playing with Lacey and against McGuckin.

"He has moved fast but he is a huge talent and a big fella for his age, he is well fit for it. The most important thing is to try and keep a level head on him. He's only been on the panel three months and has all this hype to deal with. But that's where the management come in and Jim is great at getting the head right."

Lacey has played under four managers. Brian McEniff called him into the panel, Brian McIver succeeded him, next came Doherty and now McGuinness. But although Lacey has won two All Star awards in those seven years, it hasn't been all plain sailing. Donegal, in truth, have made little impact on the Ulster or All-Ireland championships in that time.

In 2008, he spent six month travelling. Just before he left, McIver was axed as team manager. Lacey wasn't happy with the decision so he went on record and aired his grievances with the Donegal set-up and the manner in which McIver was treated.

"Things were very lackadaisical for a long time in Donegal and a lot of players felt that there was a lot of people against us. We didn't even know if the county board wanted us to do well. I thought it had to be said and I wasn't saying it and doing a runner.

"I just thought that it was the right time to say it because the way Brian McIver was treated was totally wrong. I hope that it made a wee bit of a difference. Things are on the way up at the minute in Donegal and we've put all that behind us."

He has played corner-back since he joined the panel in 2004 and more often than not has fulfilled a man-marking role on a lot of the big names in the game -- Benny Coulter, Colm Cooper, Daniel Goulding -- and kept a fair share of them scoreless. He doesn't study how his opponent plays, doesn't watch DVDs of them, he just goes out and plays to his own strengths.

But now under McGuinness, his role has changed. He has been moved out the field into the half-back line. He prefers his new position, it allows him to get forward. In the Ulster semi-final against Tyrone, it was Lacey's pass to Colm McFadden that set up Donegal's first goal.

"When you are in the corner you don't get to play ball as much, you are pulling and dragging and you don't really get on the ball. Whereas in the half-back line you get on the ball and create moves. It's great that Jim has given me that chance, I'm loving it right now. The aim of the game is different but you have to be able to get on with it and adapt to the change."

Today Lacey will be out the field against Derry, he's not sure who he will be marking and with so many managers releasing bogus teams, he won't take anything for granted. "When I first heard about poor Eoin Bradley this week at the back of my head I was thinking is this part of the psychology thing? Is he injured? Is he going to play? When we run out, are we going to see Eoin Bradley out warming up?"

"I don't think these last-minute changes affect the opposition but I don't think there is any need for it either. To be honest, when you see a team on paper you always think they are not going to line out that way."

Since Donegal beat Tyrone three weeks ago not a day has gone by that Lacey hasn't pictured Michael Murphy walking up the steps in Clones to claim the Ulster title. He is one of those players that knows what he wants: today it's an Anglo Celt medal and it's so close he can almost touch it.

Sunday Indo Sport