When David Lacey closed the lid of his laptop at the end of the 2002 World Cup final in Yokohama, an era was ending. It was the last match of his 30-year run 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 wrote. “Brazil’s object had been all sublime and Germany’s defeat was widely regarded as a source of innocent merriment. It was not a bad way for Japan to start the rainy season.”
The half-hidden reference to The Mikado, WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s comic opera, was characteristic not just in the clue it gave to Lacey’s range of interests but in its relevance. He never wasted words but enjoyed using them to enrich the reader’s pleasure in what might otherwise have been a recitation of facts.
A little earlier in the same report, Lacey employed a similar technique when describing the game’s protagonist and the beaten side’s goalkeeper: “Four years after he had wandered about the Stade de France in a trance as Brazil lost the previous final 3-0 to the hosts, the George Formby grin was back on Ronaldo’s face. Meanwhile a forlorn figure leant against a goalpost long after the finish. If Oliver Kahn was waiting for a certain little lady to pass by and tell him it had never happened, then he was waiting in vain.”
That contest in Japan marked the end of Lacey’s 10th World Cup. In 1966, two years after joining the Guardian, he had been at Ayresome Park to see North Korea defeat the mighty Italians. “It is 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 in and will play in the quarter-finals.” Noting the enthusiasm of the local spectators for the underdogs, he remarked that when the final whistle came: “One would have thought that Middlesbrough had won the FA Cup.”
Four years later he was in England’s Mexico City hotel when the storm broke over accusations that Bobby Moore had stolen a bracelet in Bogota before the tournament. “Sir Alf Ramsey strode past the swimming pool refusing even to acknowledge a tentative ‘good morning’ from a group of English newspapermen,” he wrote. Different times, different behaviour.
He was unfailingly fair-minded. His report on England’s departure from the 1986 World Cup began with a typical piece of wordplay: “The sorcery, not to mention the sauce, of Diego Maradona ended England’s World Cup hopes in the Azteca Stadium.” But he went on to observe, not without sympathy, that Argentinians saw Maradona’s handball goal as fair recompense for the expulsion of their captain, Antonio Rattín, at Wembley 20 years earlier.
Although never a showy writer, Lacey was held in special esteem and affection by peers and rivals who recognised his blend of wit, craftsmanship and knowledge of the game. The quality and integrity of his work allowed him to stand aloof from the frantic chase for a scoop, while a somewhat gruff manner failed to disguise a nature that made him excellent company for colleagues on long trips abroad.
An acute but almost pleasurable sense of embarrassment still surrounds the memory of settling into the seat next to him before a match at Old Trafford one night in 1995. Newly recruited to the Guardian, and aware that the sports editor was keen to avoid individual writers treading on each other’s toes in matters of subject and angle, I meant well when asking Lacey, who was reading the programme, what he intended to write about. He didn’t raise his head. “The usual,” he grunted. Never again would I bother him with such a daft question.
The usual meant a carefully composed match report containing all the salient details and an impression of the ebb and flow of the game with sufficient colour to bring the occasion to life on the page and just enough humour to lift it above the norm. And, of course, those allusions to life outside football, often drawn from his other great loves, cricket and the cinema, and from his knowledge of history.
On the retirement from international football in 1971 of the man he considered to be “the perfect footballer – or at least as near perfect as makes no difference”, he wrote: “Pelé is to Brazilian football what Bradman was to Australian cricket. His scoring feats … are unparalleled, his ability to win matches virtually single-handed unequalled.” In a review of the 1986-87 domestic season, he compared Dave Bassett’s unruly and overachieving Wimbledon side to Quantrill’s Raiders, the antiheroes of an obscure 1958 American civil war movie of that name. The faint praise accorded to Howard Kendall’s Everton, the new champions, reminded him of Churchill’s dismissal of Chamberlain as “a good lord mayor of Birmingham in a bad year”. The facts, he added, did not support that view.
In 1977 he was in Rome to see Liverpool take the European Cup for the first time, having just won the league and lost the FA Cup final. “No English club will come closer to the treble without actually winning it,” he wrote, and he was there 22 years later to see Manchester United fulfil his prediction.
At Heysel and Hillsborough, he witnessed events that scarred English football for a generation. The latter reminded him of reading, during his own boyhood, accounts of a similar tragedy at Bolton, when 33 were killed in the crush at a 1946 Cup quarter-final. “The worst tragedy in British sport,” he concluded as the Liverpool death toll rose, “had also been the most avoidable. No one should have to die in order to see Peter Beardsley hit the bar. The capacity for human error and faulty judgments in a crisis is undiminished. Hillsborough has proved that.”
Before Lacey’s appointment, the Guardian’s postwar football reporters had included such distinguished writers as Donny Davies, killed in the Munich air crash of 1958, John Arlott, Albert Barham and Eric Todd. Not merely keeping the bar high, he added a distinctive touch that his admirers will remember as long as the victories and defeats he described with such unfussy eloquence.