Excitement is building ahead of the 2019 Ulster SFC final between Donegal and Cavan.
Cavan are in their first decider since 2001 and are searching for their first provincial crown since 1997. If they do get over the line, it’ll be the Breffni County’s 40th Ulster title and reaffirm their status as Ulster’s most successful team.
However, in Donegal, they face the provinces most successful side this decade. Michael Murphy will lead them into battle tomorrow looking to lift the Anglo-Celt trophy for the fifth time since 2011.
One man who has been an ever-present for Donegal, on both sides of the white line, throughout the county’s golden era is Karl Lacey. Named Footballer of the Year in 2012 when they reached the promised land, Lacey has spent the last two seasons since his retirement working as part of Declan Bonner’s backroom team.
Lacey stepped straight from playing into coaching and as he prepares for another Ulster final, the Four Masters legend admits he didn’t know what to expect when brought into the Donegal management set-up.
“I didn’t know what to expect. I think it’s more mentally than physically different.
“Playing is probably more physically demanding. Mentally you are just thinking about it 24/7. Jesus, there’d be nights I’d be getting up at night to open the laptop and have a look at a clip just to convince myself that that is what we need to do or something.
“I would be rolling around in bed thinking about it or whatever because it’s a big responsibility and I’m looking for them guys to showcase the abilities that they have.”
Lacey admits that the challenges of working in inter-county management differ from playing mainly because as players, you are able to switch off before and after training.
“As a player, you go in, you train hard, you get your recovery, you get your physio, jump in your car and you had to switch off. As a player then, you had to go off with the family, go get an ice-cream or go chill out with the lads.
“Whereas now, you’re maybe driving home, you are getting the video from training, you’re not even in the door and you’re bloody watching it again and looking at a few things so it is rolling around in your mind constantly.”
Going straight from the playing squad to the management set-up is an unusual route to travel and Lacey admits as much, however, he believes it was an easier transition jumping straight between the two because he already knew the entire squad.
“It’s a funny transition. This is my second year now. It’s different.
“You have to get the right balance. Sometimes maybe if we’re away for the weekend, at a training camp or something, you might have to pull yourself away from them. If they’re going for a coffee, you used to go with them and you’d be in the middle of them but now you have to kind of say, ‘Nah, I’m on the other side of it now. I can’t be joining ye. You’re probably giving out about me down at the coffee shop!’
“It’s easier to make transitions straight from playing, I think, to go into it than to maybe stepping out for a couple of years. I think it would be a lot harder to go back into the dressing room. I know where it left off in 2017, I knew all the players at that stage. I met Declan Bonner in 2017 and he asked me would I come in. It didn’t take too long to think about it. If there was a role for me, if there’s anything to do to help these guys, I was willing to do it because I’ve got so much out of my own career.
“I know how it feels to win an Ulster medal, an All-Ireland and there’s nothing more I would like to see than Eoghan Ban Gallagher going on and doing the same thing. Ryan McHugh, Paul Brennan, all these guys. I just want to see them guys winning Ulster medals. If there’s anything I can do there to help them do that, I’m happy to.”
Lacey helped guide Donegal to last year’s Ulster title and the county go in search of back-to-back crowns tomorrow.
However, neither Lacey nor the Donegal camp will be looking past Cavan who have looked very impressive throughout their Championship run so far.
“They have corner-backs kicking scores, they have Killian Clarke coming up from six. Nice versatility around the middle third — Gearoid McKiernan playing full-forward, then he’s out catching ball in the middle of the field.
“Dara McVeety’s playing in the half-forward line then he’s in the full-forward line, Marty Reilly playing at wing-back, then he’s in the full-forward line. They’re dangerous everywhere.
“It’s a good sign of a team that they have that versatility, boys can go in and out. It’s hard to watch that and set up to beat that. We’re going to have our hands full. All we can do is look after ourselves and get our own house in order, and that’s what we plan to do.”
The Ulster final comes to a close tomorrow following one of the best provincial championships of the decade. The province has been kicked a lot over the past number of seasons, especially during Lacey’s heyday and the All-Ireland winner admits it’s nice that the competition is being painted in a positive light for a change.
“It’s kicked a lot but it’s just so competitive, I think that’s why.
“The style of football and the way teams set-up, it’s just because teams are looking to win and be really competitive but I suppose it’s changing a wee bit now in terms of the defensive systems.
“To have Michael Murphy behind the ball all the time or Dara McVeety behind the ball all the time, it’s important to let them boys play. Maybe Ulster football is started to shine a bit again and it’s good to see two teams who haven’t played each other in an Ulster final in a while, Donegal and Cavan, so hopefully we can showcase what ulster football is all about and have a good spectacle.”