When David Lacey closed his laptop cover at the end of the 2002 World Cup final in Yokohama, an era was ending. It was the last game in his 30-year career as the Guardian’s football correspondent, and he concluded his report on Brazil’s 2-0 victory over Germany with a paragraph that could not have been more typical.
“Presumably the Emperor of Japan was suitably impressed,” he writes. “Brazil’s goal had been sublime and the defeat of Germany was widely regarded as a source of innocent mirth. It was not a bad way for Japan to start the rainy season.
The half-hidden reference to Mikado, the comedy opera by WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, was characteristic not only for the clue it gave to Lacey’s range of interests, but also for its relevance. He never wasted words but loved to use them to enrich the reader’s pleasure in what might otherwise have been a recitation of facts.
Earlier in the same report, Lacey used a similar technique to describe the protagonist of the match and the goalkeeper of the beaten team: “Four years after wandering the Stade de France in a trance as Brazil lost the previous 3-0 final against hosts, George Formby’s smile was back on Ronaldo’s face. Meanwhile, a desperate figure leaned against a goal post long after the finish. If Oliver Kahn was waiting for a certain little lady to come by and tell him that this had never happened, then he would wait in vain.
This competition in Japan marked the end of Lacey’s 10th World Cup. In 1966, two years after joining the Guardian, he traveled to Ayresome Park to watch North Korea defeat the mighty Italians. “It’s almost unbelievable,” he wrote. “Rivera, Mazzola, Facchetti out of the World Cup. Pak Doo Ik, Im Seung Hwi, Han Bong Zin and company are still present and will play in the quarterfinals. Noting the enthusiasm of the local spectators for the underdogs, he remarked that at the final whistle: “You would have thought that Middlesbrough had won the FA Cup.”
Four years later, he was at the Mexico City Hotel in England when the storm erupted over accusations that Bobby Moore had stolen a bracelet in Bogota prior to the tournament. “Sir Alf Ramsey walked past the pool, refusing even to acknowledge a tentative ‘hello’ from a group of English journalists,” he wrote. Different times, different behaviors.
He was unfailingly impartial. His report on England’s departure from the 1986 World Cup began with a typical pun: “Witchcraft, not to mention the sauce, by Diego Maradona ended England’s World Cup hopes. at the Azteca stadium. But he then observed, not without sympathy, that the Argentines saw Maradona’s handball goal as a fair reward for the expulsion of their captain, Antonio Rattín, from Wembley 20 years earlier.
Although he was never a sighted writer, Lacey was held in special esteem and affection by his peers and rivals who recognized his blend of wit, skill and knowledge of the game. integrity of his job kept him away from the frantic race for a scoop, while a somewhat gruff manner failed to disguise a nature that made him great company for his co-workers on long trips abroad.
A sharp but almost pleasant feeling of embarrassment still surrounds the memory of settling in the seat next to him before a game at Old Trafford one night in 1995. Newly recruited to the Guardian, and aware the sports editor was keen on prevent individual writers from walking. on each other’s toes in subject and angle, I meant okay by asking Lacey, who was reading the program, what he intended to write about. He didn’t look up. “As usual,” he growled. I would never bother him with such a stupid question again.
The usual meant a carefully composed match report containing all the salient details and a feel of the ebb and flow of the game with enough color to bring the occasion to life on the page and just enough humor to elevate it to the above the standard. And, of course, those allusions to life outside of football, often taken from his other great loves, cricket and the cinema, and his knowledge of history.
Upon the retirement from international football in 1971 of the man he considered “the perfect footballer – or at least as nearly perfect as it makes no difference”, he writes: “Pele is to Brazilian football what Bradman was to. Australian cricket. His goalscoring exploits … are unprecedented, his ability to win matches virtually unmatched on his own. In a review of the 1986-87 national season, he compared Dave Bassett’s unruly and outperforming team at Wimbledon to the Quantrill Raiders, the anti-heroes of an obscure 1958 American Civil War film bearing that name. The low praise given to Everton by new champions Howard Kendall reminded him of Churchill’s dismissal of Chamberlain as ‘good Lord Lord Mayor of Birmingham in a bad year’. The facts, he added, do not support this view.
In 1977 he was in Rome to see Liverpool win the European Cup for the first time, having won the championship and lost the FA Cup final. “No English club will come close to the treble without actually winning it,” he wrote, and he was there 22 years later to watch Manchester United fulfill their prediction.
At Heysel and Hillsborough he witnessed events that marked English football for a generation. The latter reminded him of reading, during his own childhood, tales of a similar tragedy in Bolton, when 33 people were killed in the crash in a 1946 Cup quarterfinal. British sports tragedy, “he concluded as the death toll in Liverpool rose,” had also been the most preventable. No one should have to die to see Peter Beardsley hit the bar. The capacity for human error and mistaken judgments in a crisis is not diminished, as Hillsborough has proven.
Prior to Lacey’s appointment, the Guardian’s post-war football reporters included such prominent writers as Donny Davies, killed in the Munich air crash in 1958, John Arlott, Albert Barham and Eric Todd. Not only by keeping the bar high, he added a distinctive touch his admirers will remember as long as the wins and losses he described with such simple eloquence.