Karl Lacey is reborn on an epic journey
Donegal talisman fights injury, clocks up the miles and becomes a father on road to final
BEING an inter-county footballer, we are frequently told, is a full-time preoccupation without the financial benefits of an actual occupation.
The daily sacrifices required are referenced in some glib, vague fashion but most of the time we don't stop to consider what they might entail.
What we often forget is that these footballers have very real lives to live, away from the training ground sanctuary of MacCumhaill Park or Fitzgerald Stadium.
Take Karl Lacey. The four-time All Star was Footballer of the Year in 2012. Since then he has been to injury hell and back.
But there's also Karl Lacey, the person. He turned 30 earlier this month. Last January, he went back to college.
And, nine days before Donegal's celebrated ambush of Dublin, while his colleagues were ensconced in Johnstown House on a five-day training camp, he was attending the birth of his son, Noah, in Letterkenny Hospital.
Propelled by the adrenaline rush of this life-changing experience, he then drove through the night to join up with the squad for training.
"My partner, Ciara, went into hospital on the Wednesday and we had the baby on Friday," Lacey recounts. "The boys were away so it was kind of hard juggling both ... 'Should I go down to the boys or should I stay around the hospital?'
"In fairness to Jim (McGuinness) and Paul McGonigle, they were great support and they told me to stay where I was. There are other things more important.
"The baby was born at 11pm so I drove down to the boys in Johnstown House throughout the night and trained on Saturday morning. I suppose you are on a high and things are good. It kept me going all week."
Surely the fatigue got to him? "I'm well used to the driving. These things have to be done. I suppose if I miss training, I'm thinking about it and putting doubts into my head.
"I was tired training that Saturday morning but I had the whole day to lie around and catch up on my sleep. It was a good weekend overall, the way things went."
The following weekend, in Croker, wasn't half-bad either. More anon.
Lacey is no stranger to the long and winding road, having enrolled in the University of Limerick at the start of 2014 to study for a Masters in Sports Performance.
Pretty soon it will be full steam ahead for a thesis to be submitted in December. Earlier in the year, classes ran until July - which entailed lots of driving between UL and Ballybofey, almost 200 miles away. "Gort, Claregalway, Tuam, Knock, Charlestown, Sligo - not too many motorways around there," he points out. "Earlier on in the season I would come up on a Thursday. Once we hit April/May I had to try and get up for as many sessions as I could. There is no other way around it.
"I used to head down on a Sunday evening, have a class on Monday, class on Tuesday, then head back up the road for training at around 2pm. Back down on a Wednesday morning, back up on a Thursday. There is no other way around it," he reiterates.
"I spoke to lecturers in UL; it's a sports course and they understand what it takes ... so if I needed a day off, they understood. Four and a half hours, not the best of roads."
Michael Boyle, Donegal's sub goalkeeper, was doing the same course - the company on that long trek ("he can fairly chat") shortened the journey.
Lacey and his comrades have been on another journey this summer, one of redemption and rediscovery. For much of 2013, he was fighting the injury gods - first came that lengthy rehabilitation from hip surgery, followed by further knee trouble in early summer. His fraught individual battle was mirrored by a collective struggle culminating in that horror-show quarter-final against Mayo.
Lacey watched the semi-finals from his couch, thinking "these teams aren't world-beaters. We're as good as those teams." And the final? "I was in Vilamoura watching the All-Ireland," he recounts. "Had to get out of the country. I was in Vilamoura in the pub, O'Neill's on the marina. There was a Dublin wedding over and they were singing. It was a hard place to be. One or two were over chatting. You are sitting there and watching and saying to yourself, 'We can be there, without a doubt'.
"When we came home a few of the boys gathered, called a meeting ... everyone was honest and, in fairness to everyone, they stayed on and said they would give it a big push."
Compared to last year, the injuries have been relatively minor. "I'm feeling all right, feeling good again," he reports, even if a hamstring niggle that he carried into the quarter-final against Armagh flared up inside ten minutes. At half-time the medics discussed his possible withdrawal; he ended up lasting the 70 as Donegal were pushed to the brink.
"I was playing a sweeper role ... I didn't have to do any full-out sprints so I could have got away with it. I recovered again and felt good against Dublin," he assures.
"A massive boost" and "huge for confidence" is how Lacey describes that shock-and-awe result. "To beat what was the best team in the country over the last two years; to match them for strength, pace and speed and to beat them by six points as well was massive for us. We'll bring that into the game the next day and hopefully increase it another level or two."
Clearly, Donegal have evolved from the ultra-defensive unit that Jim McGuinness first unleashed in 2011.
"I always enjoy the way Donegal play their football," his No 6 talisman enthuses. "Jim tweaks the game-plan all the time. I don't think there is any one day we go out and play the same ... it keeps teams guessing and it keeps all the players fresh as well, and we look forward to training and seeing what else he is going to come up with.
"He's coaching you different things all the time. He's going to change it again against Kerry. We believe in everything that he tell us."