When Jim McGuinness was unveiled as Donegal manager just over a year ago he mentioned one of the bare requirements of his players was to leave everyone ounce on the pitch - win, lose or draw.
There have been multiple examples of that level of dedication in McGuinness’s first season at the helm but none so graphic as Karl Lacey during the theatrical All-Ireland quarter-final win over Kildare last month.
In the lead-up to Christy Toye’s levelling point the Four Masters defender maintained possession before falling flat on his stomach in front of the Davin Stand after he and Neil McGee pick pocketed Kildare substitute Alan Smith before starting the move.
Having summoned himself from the floor, when Kevin Cassidy drew for goal just over a minute later it was Lacey who was breaking through like a train in support, the furthest Donegal player forward as the ball dropped over the bar for what turned out to be the winning score.
Amid the celebrations, Lacey’s legs could be seen wobbling in sheer exhaustion, with his interview whilst collecting his man of the match award seemed to be conducted on autopilot mode. Just like his manager had sought, Lacey had left every ounce on the pitch and in a contest when the margins were so close, it was the difference in winning and losing.
“I was just really dehydrated,” Lacey says when reminded of the final minutes against the side managed by Kieran McGeeney. “At this stage of the championship you just have to leave absolutely everything behind you. That was a point we made at half-time in the dressing room. I think everyone did. I was glad to hear the full-time whistle all the same.
“Last year we discovered we were so far behind and would have to put everything into getting up to a level again. We got stuck into it under Jim.”
In a myriad of plots and counter-plots, Lacey’s duel with Alan Brogan on Sunday is likely to be an excellent cameo between two candidates whose names have been mentioned for Footballer of the Year.
If the teams had met in years gone by perhaps Bernard Brogan would be Lacey’s immediate opponent but McGuinness has plumped for the Donegal Town native in a more natural role at centre-back.
Previous Donegal managers have toyed with the idea of using the 26-year-old in the half-back-line, facing the play and not curbing his natural enthusiasm for attacking. Lacey, though, was probably the victim of his own talents and versatility and having been introduced as a corner-back by Brian McEniff, won All-Star awards in the corner under Brian McIver in 2006 and then Joe Joe Doherty three years later.
“Maybe one of my weaknesses was my strength and I started doing more gym work in the mornings,” Lacey adds. “Maybe that’s why Jim moved me out to the half-back line. I’m stronger now don’t really feel pressure or anything like that and am enjoying football.
“To be honest I prefer the role instead of being in the corner hanging off the like of Paddy Bradley or Benny Coulter or someone like that. It’s definitely more enjoyable and I like getting the chance to go forward but if I am asked to play in the corner against Dublin then that’s fine with me.”
Should Lacey win another All-Star this season, he will then surpass Martin McHugh’s two and have genuine reason to be declared perhaps the county’s best ever. However, such arguments are for barstools and as Lacey admits himself, individual accolades are well received but are certainly not the driving force.
“People talk about the two All-Stars from corner-back but that’s not what you think about when you’re going out to start training at the start of the year,” he says.
“For us, it was about the Ulster title. I’ve been to the All-Star awards a couple of times and I’d be hanging around with the Cork lads or the Kerry lads and often wondered would we get a few there some day. The talent was always there but now everyone’s rowing in the right direction.
“Everyone has come together and it’s a whole unit. Every single person has put in their own wee bit. The level of preparation is all new to me but when Jim got the job last year he had boys in the gym straight away.
“The Tyrones and Armaghs have been putting in an awful lot of work for the last few years and we are just doing the same. We have an awful lot more to get up to their level but we’ve done okay this year. We want to be in All-Ireland semi-finals every year.
“All the other counties are putting in huge efforts and you can see it has to be done. If it’s not you’d be as well off leaving and going out the door. When Jim took over he told us that was the requirement and fair play to everyone who came on board, they gave their word and stuck to it.”
Lacey and his team-mates enter Sunday’s semi-final against the Leinster champions as underdogs. Again the honesty of Donegal’s players will be paramount as will their diligence and endeavour as they try to make an All-Ireland final for only the second time in their history.
“We need a big 70 minutes to have a chance of getting the better of Dublin,” he adds. “They were very impressive against Tyrone and looking back perhaps Mickey Harte will wonder why he didn’t drop a man back. Dublin like to play it very quick and there’s also an onus on you to snuff it out the field.
“It’s something I’m sure we’ll look at. It’s all well and good getting men back but it has to be done fast. It’s going to be hard, even more so than the Kildare game but all we can is prepare the best we can to get the job done.”
Seventy minutes? It sounds so close. And with players like Karl Lacey involved Donegal’s following can rest assured they won’t be too far away.