Lacey fully confident of game plan
WHAT DOES the concession of 1-27 in Croke Park during the month of August do to an elite Gaelic footballer’s insides? “Ah Jesus, that day was horrible,” said Karl Lacey of Donegal’s last championship meeting with Cork.
Acquaintances will be renewed on Sunday with a place in the All-Ireland final at stake. Cork are trying to regain the crown they finally captured in 2010, while it’s been 20 years since Donegal felt the euphoria of bringing Sam Maguire home with them. Lacey was seven years old then.
So much has changed within the psyche of Donegal football since that 2009 quarter-final thrashing. The game very quickly became a non-event with Cork building up a 14-point lead early in the second-half.
Lacey kept Daniel Goulding, one of Cork’s chief forwards, quiet when other man markers were being destroyed. That year actually saw the Four Masters defender get a second All Star award, with the third coming last season to establish Lacey as one of the best all-round footballers on the island.
But it was Jim McGuinness’s arrival as manager that suggests a repeat of that Cork defeat will not occur three years on.
“Ah, we are miles ahead of where we where at that time. Well, hopefully. But I’m sure Cork have improved since that time as well. That’s a game to forget playing for Donegal. Leaving Croke Park that day it was hard to take. We’ve a chance to put things right.”
What exactly has changed from there to here? Everything, it seems.
“We didn’t have the preparation,” Lacey explained. “All the times I played for Donegal back then you are going to Croke Park and you are hoping you can put in a big performance. Now, we’ve the belief. Coming up to Croke Park you know if you stick to the game plan Jim gives us, give it your all, you are not going to be far away.”
Lacey says Cork remain the best team around. Describing Paul Kerrigan and Paddy Kelly as the best “ball carriers” in the country, he quickly and calmly adds “they are going to have to be stopped on Sunday”.
Everyone has grown accustomed to Donegal’s present style of play. Last year was all about drilling the defensive stubbornness into the entire starting 15 – but with that came the realisation that an All-Ireland cannot be captured by positioning 14 men behind the ball.
“There were a lot of critics writing about it and putting a bit of pressure on Jim, but Jim doesn’t buy into that at all. I think Jim knew himself our performance in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final [against Dublin] wasn’t good enough to win the All-Ireland this year.
“Suppose the one way he could tweak that was our offensive play. When he got us together in January that’s what we have been working on. We’re looking to kick on, score more and be as tight in defence as we possibly can. To date, it has been working.”
Indeed it has. They’ve already surpassed one achievement of the 1992 team by retaining the Ulster title although their inability to do anything but invite Dublin on in last year’s semi-final was evident once again in the latter stages of the Kerry victory.
That is until Lacey sprinted forward to post the final score. Seconds later he was back down his own end, scooping up a last-gasp break off Kieran Donaghy.
“We dropped back probably a wee bit too much. It probably happened to us against Kerry when we went six points up. That’s all lessons we are learning as we go along. In that position against the better teams you’ve got to be pushing on.”
Then again, should they take a four-point lead with 10 minutes remaining against Cork, McGuinness’s code words from the line will be familiar to his players. And they will be obeyed.
“We’ve played 11 championship matches under him. We’ve won 10 of them. He is young, he is fresh, he has a great way of thinking, he has huge footballing knowledge. He studied psychology.
“It is just his enthusiasm, it is something else. In training some managers stand back with their notepad just watching, he’s in the middle roaring, shouting, getting you going. He is doing that for two and half hours. Week in, week out. Football seems to be his life. He has put a huge amount into Donegal football at the moment.
“He’s definitely the right man in place at the moment, he is definitely bringing us places.”’