One of Donegal’s most stylish and influential players during their golden spell, Karl Lacey’s time on the field has been decimated by injuries in recent years. But he’s still got the desire to recapture that winning feeling, writes Orla Bannon.
Q: Karl, you’re about to embark on your 14th Ulster championship campaign. How does that feel?
A: I’m still here! I got a bit of game time in the league and I’ve been pushing my body, without going mad at the same time. I’m just looking forward to seeing where I’m at against Antrim, this weekend.
Q: What discussions did you have with Rory Kavanagh over the winter?
A: He was welcoming me back and I said ‘yeah, I’m happy to come back and give it another shot’. Wherever he feels I can add value, I’m happy to do so, whether it’s on the training ground or chatting to the young lads in the dressing room, or coming on for 10 minutes. If he feels I’m going well, maybe he’ll start me. I don’t know what Rory’s plans are for me. I don’t know if I’ll be in the first 26 or starting 15.
Q: That must require a totally different mindset. You were one of the main men for so long.
A: It’s the reality of it, there’s no point saying any different. I’m dealing with it well. I can’t push my body the same as I could. If I do, I’m going to break down. There were three or four years there, where you were pushing hard every night, but I’ve had a couple of operations since and, at my stage of my career, now, it’s just not possible.
Q: Have you picked up any tips on how to extend your career, maybe from other sports?
A: I read Paul O’Connell’s book recently. You’re looking to see if there are any wee tricks... even he admitted he found it hard to step back.
There are nights where there are extra runs at the end and you have to say ‘no, my body can’t do that’. It is challenging in the head, but you have to know that if you go and do those runs, you’re going to be standing on the sideline for four weeks.
Q: There’s so much experience gone from your squad. Has Rory asked you to take on more of a leadership role?
A: No. He wants me to get in the best possible shape and to be fit, fast, and strong and good on the ball and be able to deliver the tactics he’s asked us to. That’s the only conversation we’ve had. But I suppose it does help having somebody who’s been around a while. I was there in 2009, when Antrim overturned us in Ballybofey and can remind people ‘listen, we can’t lose our focus here, this is what happened in 2009’.
Of course, I want to be starting, I want to be playing every minute of every game, I want to train every minute of every training session, although, if that happens, it’ll be a miracle, I’d say!
Q: Did the fact so many lads were retiring last year influence your decision to stay?
A: I didn’t want to make any rash decisions. The first thing was to sit down and talk to Rory and it’ll be the same process after this year, to see what he thinks, and my decision will be based on that. I know I’ll be raring to go, but whether I’m able to will be a different story.
Q: Have you talked to any of the old guard?
A: Yeah, I’ve been speaking to a few of them. They’re getting on, alright. I think they were ready to step away.
Q: It must be strange in the dressing room.
A: It is. We’d got very close, especially after those few years when we had that bit of success. There were team holidays and banquets and that does bring a squad together. Then, to lose seven or eight of them, maybe more if you bring Odhran MacNiallais and Leo McLoone into it, as well, it is strange, but you’ve got to get on with it. There are new guys in, now, and they’re mad keen to learn. That’s the future of Donegal football. I think it’s in a very good place.
Q: There’s a lot of talented footballers coming through. You must wish you were 10 years younger.
A: There is plenty of confidence in them after the league, but the Ulster championship is a different ball game and you’ve got to remind them of that. In fairness, they were being pulled and dragged between U21 and senior for a few weeks and there wasn’t one complaint out of them. They just did what they were told and got on with it. It’s very easy for a guy to go off huffing or pull the pin, but they stuck with it.
Q: You mentioned 2009. You played against Antrim, but you weren’t supposed to be there?
A: I was away travelling that year. I remember sitting on a beach, somewhere in New Zealand, in April. John Joe Doherty was the manager and he was ringing me to come back. My dad was the club manager, as well, and I couldn’t say no to him, anyway, whatever about John Joe! I came back and got an All Star. We got on a run through the qualifiers, but Cork hammered us in Croke Park (in the quarter-final).
Q: Was that Antrim defeat the lowest point of your career?
A: It was the low for me, personally, because I’d made the decision to go away for the year and then made the decision to come back to try to win an Ulster championship. Our eyes were definitely on the bigger picture, at the time. We weren’t expecting it at all. It was a massive learning curve for the guys. I don’t think we learned the following year, but it was something that helped when we went into the Jim McGuinness era. That game always stuck with us. No matter who we got in the first round, we never looked past them.
Q: There was a lot of pessimism around after last year’s Ulster final defeat by Tyrone, but the perception has altered after a good league.
A: We lost the first league game and it’s ‘Donegal are going to take a while to come back’. Then, you draw against Dublin and it’s ‘hold on a second, Donegal aren’t going anywhere’. If we lose against Antrim, it’ll be the exact same thing. There’s always people judging you from the outside. We understand that. The older guys know well that you’re judged on your last game. It doesn’t faze me, it doesn’t faze Neil McGee, it doesn’t faze Michael Murphy. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this year that I’m finished, I’m not going to get game time. That’s fine. I don’t care. I’m still going to go to training tomorrow night and bust my ass for Donegal to try and get game time.
Q: Who said that to you?
A: Just people on the street.
Q: After all you’ve achieved, does that still motivate you? Proving people wrong.
A: No. My motivation is that I’ve had that taste of success with Donegal. I want to climb those steps of Clones again and I want to lift that Anglo Celt. I want to go into Croke Park and have that winning feeling, walking down to the Hogan Stand dressing rooms again, embracing your team-mates. That’s what it’s all about for me. There’s no better feeling than that. That’s what I think of, when I’m training in Convoy and you’re being dogged around the pitch. That’s what goes through my head. It’s not about the person who says ‘you’re finished’.
It’s those memories about where you can go, if you push yourself and deliver performances.
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