Karl Lacey: Full-time training has improved my game, but financially it can't go on much longer
Karl Lacey and the other senior players in Donegal's squad are keen to keep the show going for as long as possible
Elite performances on GAA pitches carry a high price tag these days, and having chosen to live the life of a professional athlete, Karl Lacey is finding out the real meaning - and cost - of that decision.
Success, of course, is not - and should never be - measured in terms of hard currency, but when Donegal's most decorated footballer stares at his bank balance, he must see the opportunities to add to his medal haul slipping away with each direct debit.
Leaving full-time employment to undertake a master's in Sports Performance at UL seemed a big enough step when the pay cheques stopped rolling in.
Since completing his thesis in February, he has been a full-time Gaelic footballer - and it's no coincidence that performances have returned to near 2012 levels, when he finished the season as Footballer of the Year.
"There's no getting away from the fact that not working, having the time to live that kind of life, is helping me perform better on the pitch," he says. "It's a serious difference, my lifestyle this year. Instead of driving four hours up and down to Limerick twice a week, now I'm 20 minutes from the training ground and I have a healthy lifestyle.
"A bit of enjoyment has come back into it as well. Now you're looking forward to training because you know you can perform at your highest level possible.
"I eat my proper meals at the proper times and get to spend an hour doing stretches and stuff during the day before training. It's definitely standing to me."
Sounds rosy - until the harsh realities kick in and he starts to contemplate how much longer he can bankroll the idyll. "Financially, not too much longer. Probably in my head, it's until this year is over. I'm just going to give it my all this year until the football is over and maybe start looking for employment then."
A hip injury, sustained during a condensed club championship programme in the weeks after Donegal's All-Ireland success, caused him to have two operations, meaning 2013 was a non-event for the Four Masters defender. He returned last year, but was a shadow of himself.
This year he's been more like the Karl Lacey of old, the player who delivered excellence in the midst of mediocrity. Winning All-Stars in successful teams, as he did in 2011 and 2012, is one thing, but winning All-Stars in poor teams, as he did in 2006 and again 2009 when Cork hockeyed them by 14 points in an All-Ireland quarter-final, is another.
Being able to recapture his best form this year makes a strong case for the lifestyle he is living. And he's not alone.
"Along with Kieran Donaghy and Darran (O'Sullivan), the joke was going around that we're all ex-Ulster Bank staff and have our money made already. That's definitely not the case! If I continue to play next year, it's going to be very hard. Am I going to work or am I taking another year out? I mean, where does it stop?"
The demands on players are excessive and Lacey can only see one outcome - the shortening of inter-county careers. He will be 31 a few weeks before this year's All-Ireland final and, the way things are going, that's not a bad innings.
"It's something they (GAA) need to look at, but how can they approach it? Like, what is the right answer? A few years ago you had players playing until 34 or 35, but the younger players in our squad aren't going to play when they're 30.
"It's definitely not sustainable. The amount of training, the amount of gym work you have to do, the amount of recovery - every day you're asked to do something and players will do whatever they're asked, first of all because they love it.
"You hope to get success out of it and we've been very lucky. There are plenty of county teams doing what we do and haven't had that success."
Success has certainly kept Donegal's sizeable crop of thirtysomethings interested for long enough and it's helped that they've been lightly raced by Rory Gallagher.
They enter a fifth successive Ulster final today fresh, thanks to a gentler training programme given to the older players, and Lacey is feeling the benefits. Good health, a nice life and the realisation that this Donegal team is coming towards the end of its cycle are what's spurring him on now.
"I suppose it is in the back of guys' heads that this could be their last year. I know it's in mine," he admits. "I just take each year as it comes. At the end of this year, whatever happens, I'll sit down and talk to my family and listen to my own body. It might be time to say, 'OK, this is it, I can't give any more'.
"You have a core group of players, eight or nine players, who have been there a long time. Rory Kavanagh took the step away last year and you'd hope maybe a bit of success this year might keep boys there for another few years, but I suppose that's what's driving everybody.
"We have spent a lot of time together down through the years and it's a story that you don't want to end - but, at the same time, you know it's coming close, and you don't want to have any regrets. It's a very special group of players within that dressing room in Donegal at the minute and we will try to keep the show on the road for as long as possible."
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