PATRICK COLLINS, SJA President, pays tribute to friend David Lacey, former Guardian football correspondent, who has died age 83
At a critical stage of the 1977 FA Cup final between Liverpool and Manchester United, the Liverpool goalkeeper Ray Clemence was beaten at the foot of his near post by a low drive from United’s Stuart Pearson. Clemence came in for some fierce criticism from those who believe that an accomplished ‘keeper should never be defeated at the near post. But one critic begged to differ.
In his Guardian report, David Lacey wrote: “Blaming Clemence was rather like asking why, from time to time, Hutton was beaten by Lindwall’s yorker.”
In a single, elegant phrase, Lacey had ended the argument. It was an enviable trick, and he brought it off on a routine basis during his 38 years with the newspaper.
In the course of those years he covered ten World Cup Finals, and to each event he brought qualities of style, wit, and insight which were easy to appreciate but quite impossible to emulate. Somebody once described sport as “a glorious irrelevance”. In all his football writing, Lacey, who has died at the age of 83, seemed to embody that philosophy; recognising the irrelevance, but revelling in the glory.
I recall one evening on the Avenida Corrientes in Buenos Aires, where a crowded bar was celebrating Argentina’s latest step on the road to World Cup victory. Suddenly, the din was silenced by a bespectacled Englishman, standing on the bar rail and booming out two choruses of “Sussex-by-the Sea”
For many of his colleagues in the football press box, he represented a kind of touchstone. Every sports writer will recognise that frightening moment when we have sent across a long piece in a ferocious hurry, and we suddenly question our own judgment. Was the balance fair? Did things really happen in the way we described?
That was when I would turn to the man in the Guardian seat, the diffident chap in the tweed jacket, the one who had written twice as much and finished five minutes earlier. “What did you make of it, David?”; And he would rattle off half a dozen analytical phrases, deliver a couple of incisive verdicts and apologise for rushing off to catch his train. And I would either sigh my relief … or think about a re-write.
Lacey’s Guardian colleague, Richard Williams, painted a discerning picture in his obituary this week : “The quality of his (Lacey’s) work allowed him to stand aloof from the frantic chase for a scoop, while a somewhat gruff manner failed to disguise a nature which made him excellent company for colleagues on long trips abroad.”
Excellent company indeed, and never better than on those late nights in faraway places where he would tell his tales and – on rare and precious occasions – sing his songs. I recall one evening on the Avenida Corrientes in Buenos Aires, where a crowded bar was celebrating Argentina’s latest step on the road to World Cup victory. Suddenly, the din was silenced by a bespectacled Englishman, standing on the bar rail and booming out two choruses of “Sussex-by-the Sea”.
As the applause erupted, Lacey shook his head: “Oh God!”, he said. “What made me do that?”. And he poured himself another glass of excellent red wine. Over the next couple of decades, he would swiftly change the subject whenever that tale was brought up.
But he was a man of Sussex; born in Lewes in 1938, the son of a local newspaper editor, he joined the Evening Argus after National Service with the RAF. He moved to the Guardian as a sports sub, but his writing talent was too obvious to ignore, and he swiftly settled into the task he was to carry out so brilliantly for so long.
It helped, of course, that Lacey loved the game. It helped still more that his love was not uncritical. Unlike a few of his contemporaries, he did not admire the cynical cloggers, who were mercifully more common in the 70s and 80s than they are today. Still less did he enjoy the manufactured bluster of certain managers, anxious to gain a name as “characters”. I used to smile at his weary wince as one or the other trotted out their tedious catch-phrases at press conferences. “Why do they do it?” he would mutter. “Who are they trying to impress?” And he would tear up his notes and write the witty, considered, insightful piece that his readers had come to expect.
David Lacey was a wonderful writer and one of the main reasons I chose the Guardian to be ‘my paper’ when I moved to England. This is lovely by @rwilliams1947: David Lacey never wasted words – he used them to enrich the reader https://t.co/oflsgbawiH
— Marcus Christenson (@m_christenson) November 18, 2021
He had his heroes, of course. Pele stood at the summit; unchallenged, untouchable. Maradona was a slightly guilty pleasure. And, while he might have preferred a Brighton player in bronze medal position, he may well have accepted Messi or Cruyff. No matter. All were celebrated in the same, glowing, prose of a man who loved football.
Lacey retired in 2002, stepping down at the close of the World Cup Final in Yokohama. On his retirement, he moved to the Cambridgeshire countryside, where he enjoyed the company of his close family.
The Guardian did him proud when his death was announced, awarding him the prominence his career had deserved. I particularly enjoyed their reprise of his one-liners:
- Bobby Robson – has the natural expression of a man who fears he might have left the gas on
- David Batty – would doubtless get himself booked playing Handel’s Largo
- And, a personal favourite: Paul Gascoigne – doubts about his fitness persist, and only a twisted cynic would say that half an oaf is better than none
It is the nature of sports journalists that we tend to deal in stark comparisons: Who broke the finest exclusives? Who nailed the most dramatic interviews? Who wrote the most memorable features? Soon after Lacey retired, I had lunch with Frank Keating. We swapped admiring stories about our friend, and agreed that he would be practically impossible to replace.
“But just how good a football writer was David”, I asked. “I mean, where would he stand in an all-time list?” Frank didn’t hesitate. “David Lacey was the best football writer in the English language”, he said. “The best there’s ever been.”
And Frank Keating was a very fine judge.