Tribute: David Lacey, the greatest football correspondent ever to write in English

OBITUARY

So farewell then, David Lacey. The greatest football writer ever to work in the English language died, aged 83, in a care home in St Ives, Cambridgeshire, England on 15 November 2021. His two younger brothers, like him, were journalists: whereas Jeremy predeceased him, he is survived by Roger.

 

“After he retired from The Guardian”, revealed Roger, “David moved to the Cambridgeshire countryside, where he very much enjoyed the company of his family. In later years he went into care and while his memory may have faded he could usually be relied on to recall his first visit to Wembley for the Matthews Cup Final, Pak Doo-ik’s famous goal as North Korea beat Italy in the 1966 World Cup or the time he crossed swords with Mrs Thatcher during a Downing Street reception.”

In a poignant symmetry, Lacey’s career as a football reporter is bookended by two major upsets in football history: Italian teams being knocked out of world cups by North Korea and South Korea in England 1966 and Japan-South Korea 2002, respectively; they were the first and last of the 10 world cups he covered. 

A few days before the 2002 World Cup final between Brazil and Germany, his swan song as The Guardian’s chief football correspondent, Lacey reminisced about his overall world cup experience, including that very tournament: “The South Koreans […] were setting new standards on public rejoicing long before their team made the semifinals. And now that Italy have managed to go out of a world cup to opponents from south of the 38th parallel as well as north, it really is time to get up and leave. It’s more or less where this reporter came in.”

Lacey — who in 1964 became a subeditor on the sports desk of The Guardian after a fortuitous encounter with the newspaper’s then sports editor, John Samuel, at Hove cricket ground — wrote, “Watching Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Wim van Hanegem and the rest of Rinus Michels’s Holland team show the world a new, breathtaking way to play remains the most rewarding experience in nearly 40 years of football reporting.”

Nevertheless, Lacey considered the Brazil of 1970 the best-ever international team, and Pelé the greatest-ever footballer.

It was on 23 November 1964 that Lacey’s byline first graced the pages of The Guardian, accompanying his report of a game, in English football’s old Second Division, between Coventry City and Crystal Palace, which ended in a goalless draw. However, his experience in newspapers preceded his arrival at The Guardian.

He was born David Edward Charles Lacey in Lewes, Sussex, England to Hilda (née Roberts), a one-time librarian and Leslie Lacey, a journalist, on January 4, 1938. He would take to journalism, much like his father, Leslie Lacey, who served as editor of the county newspaper, the Sussex Express. Lacey began his career in journalism as a cub reporter for the Brighton Evening Argus, where he remembered “paying the managing editor’s electricity bill” as his “first assignment”. He was also a young subeditor at the Brighton Gazette. He did national service with the Royal Air Force (“Never saw a plane!”).

In an interview with the author, journalist and sportswriter Rob Steen, conducted in 2011 and published in the Routledge Handbook of Sports Journalism (2020) edited by Steen, Jed Novick and Huw Richards, Lacey was asked whether his interest in football had to do with “parental or peer influence”. He replied, “I was too slow to play — cricket was what I loved playing. I read Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly and was devouring football books from the age of eight, when I read Allison Calling by George Allison, who succeeded Herbert Chapman [as manager] at Arsenal. I was intrigued by the pictures and became an Arsenal fan, saw the reserve team play at Hastings when I was 12, although I obviously followed Brighton, too. 

“My dad was a journalist. As an eight-year-old, I went to the Dripping Pan to watch Lewes and at 13, I was there dictating dad’s copy to a Sunday paper — all 80 words of it! After 10 years doing national service and general reporting for the Brighton Argus I joined The Guardian as a subeditor through various slices of chance and luck. I’d never read the paper before — it was hard to get in Sussex. The incentive was that they gave subeditors chances to write. Within a year I was covering a European Cup semifinal at the San Siro [Inter Milan vs Liverpool].”

The first draft of (football) history

Lacey was appointed chief football correspondent for The Guardian in 1973. Often calm, concise and clear-sighted in his perspective, he was in the Estadio Azteca, Mexico City to see Diego Maradona whom he described, in The Guardian, as “Faust in football boots”, not only score “one of the greatest individual goals in the history of the game”, but also, four minutes earlier, controversially fist the ball past Peter Shilton to score Argentina’s first goal in his country’s 2-1 victory over England in the quarterfinal of the 1986 World Cup. Reflecting on Maradona and that match in 2004, he didn’t excuse Maradona, but felt Shilton should have gathered the ball before Maradona handled it.

Eschewing jargon and jingoism, Lacey added: “The expression on the Argentine’s face when the ball went into the net gave the game away: it was the look of a pickpocket who could not believe he had got away with it. Maybe Maradona’s street-urchin background did influence his infamous sleight of hand, but it was the footballer in him which demanded that he score within the laws of the game. From a position near the halfway line on the right he outpaced and outwitted four defenders before beating Shilton a second time with a goal that brooked no argument. In a matter of minutes the world had witnessed the worst and best of Diego Maradona. And it is surely better to remember the best.”

Admirable, too, are Lacey’s nuanced responses to footballing catastrophes almost immediately after their occurrences. On 29 May, 1985, before the scheduled European Cup final between Juventus and Liverpool at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium, tragedy struck when 39 people — mainly, but not exclusively, Italian — were trampled to death after a wall collapsed as Juventus supporters were fleeing their Liverpool counterparts who had breached a barrier. In the next day’s edition of The Guardian, Lacey, who was at Heysel to cover that final, began his report thus: “Professional football as a spectator sport lay mortally wounded in Brussels last night.”

Years later, asked by Steen whether there was ever a time when he thought he didn’t want to report on football for a living, Lacey replied, “After Heysel you kept thinking, not so much I should give up as ‘Why am I doing this?’”

On 15 April 1989, at the Liverpool-Nottingham FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, tragedy struck again when 96 people — Liverpool supporters occupying two overcrowded pens in the stadium’s Leppings Lane end — were crushed: 94 died at Hillsborough that day, a teenage boy died in hospital four days later, and another person, who was comatose for nearly four years, died in March 1993. In The Guardian of Monday, April 17, 1989, Lacey began his commentary thus: “First the pain, then the anger, then the questions — and as English football again counts its dead, this time after the worst tragedy in a British stadium, the biggest question of all is stark in its simplicity.

“How was it possible, after all the previous disasters, inquiries, working parties, reports, recommendations and Acts of Parliament, for almost a hundred people to be crushed to death in a football ground which had a good safety record and was not full to capacity, while only a few yards away other spectators were moving around with room to spare?”

Despite his achievement Lacey was strangely undervalued. Although he was twice named sports reporter of the year at the British Press Awards — in 1997 and 2003 — those honours came in the twilight of his career. Extraordinarily, he was never honoured or recognised in any of the relevant categories in the British sports journalism awards organised by the Sports Journalists’ Association.

Yet, between 1964 and 2013, Lacey produced a body of work in football writing — previews, profiles, features, match reports, post-match reflections or commentaries, columns — unmatched in their quality by anything else in the English-speaking world. The weekly synopsis and analysis of the weekend’s football in his Monday commentary in The Guardian, for which he became renowned, was, he acknowledged, inspired by a fellow football correspondent, Donald Saunders, whose Monday morning commentary appeared in the Telegraph, a paper Lacey used to read for the cricket.

That he has become the standard by which every football writer in the English language has to be judged is, endearingly and enduringly, Lacey’s legacy.

The wit and wisdom of David Lacey 

* Reflecting on his professional debut reporting on Scotland when, in October 1965, he covered their 2-1 defeat to Poland in a World Cup qualifying match, at Hampden Park, Glasgow: “Coming from Sussex, where there was a tendency to regard anyone who did not have a front garden as underprivileged, it was hard to believe how the tenements in Glasgow could have been allowed to exist. […] Hampden itself, grey and grubby, can surely never alter. It must be the only ground in the world which, apart from the grass, looks much the same in colour as in black and white.”

* From 1967: “Arsenal scored three with aerial moves, and with two Newtons, Henry and Keith, in their defence, one might have expected Everton to deal better with round objects dropping from the sky.” 

* On the Holland vs Italy match at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina: “Señor Martinez, the referee, was slow to realise the Dutch invented the clog.” 

On Bobby Robson, a former manager of the England men’s football team, Lacey observed that his “natural expression is that of a man who fears he might have left the gas on.” 

Of a certain talented but troubled footballer: “[D]oubts about Paul Gascoigne’s fitness persist, and only a twisted cynic would say that half an oaf is better than none.”

* After a Barcelona team destroyed a Manchester United team, 4-0 in a Champions’ League game in Camp Nou in 1994: “United had no answer to the skill, speed and imagination of [Hristo] Stoichkov and Romario, at times moving through their defence with an ease as impudent as it was embarrassing. [Gary] Pallister and [Steve] Bruce were both auditioning for the role of Juliet: Romario, Romario, wherefore art thou Romario? And nobody had a clue about Stoichkov’s whereabouts.” — Selected by Idowu Omoyele

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