A county in turmoil: The inside story on Karl Lacey's departure from the Donegal Academy
Having spent 18 months building and developing a new football Academy in Donegal, the county's most decorated player in history Karl Lacey stepped down as its head in January. Cahair O'Kane delves into the fallout…
LAST Wednesday, March 1, marked the date that county development squads could begin pitch training again for the year.
In Donegal, no training took place. There are no football development squads because there are no coaches.
There are no coaches because all of them walked away when Karl Lacey stepped down as head of the county’s football Academy in early January.
“As a group, we have lost all confidence in governance of Donegal GAA,” read the last line of a statement signed by more than 30 coaches.
Everyone involved with the U14, U15 and U16 squads left.
The management teams in charge of the flagship U17 and U20 teams remained in place.
Relationships between Lacey and some members of the executive committee had turned frosty in the latter part of 2022.
There was a change in the air after Rory Kavanagh withdrew from the process to become the next Donegal manager last autumn.
Lacey was on Kavanagh’s coaching ticket, which also would have included Jim McGuinness in a background capacity.
Having just completed his UEFA Pro Licence and still intent on staying on the soccer path, McGuinness wasn’t in a position to return as manager.
St Eunan’s, under Kavanagh, reached the Donegal final. That meant the process was delayed by a number of weeks.
The controversial sending off of Shane O’Donnell right before half-time was a key moment in Naomh Conaill’s victory. Just over a week later, Kavanagh withdrew from the process to select a new management team.
McGuinness had intimated, however, that he was available and willing to help coach the team alongside whoever was appointed.
The delays meant that Paddy Carr was only eventually installed as manager on October 24, with Aidan O’Rourke named as his head coach.
The three-man committee didn’t engage with McGuinness on his offer.
Karl Lacey continued making plans for the Academy for 2023.
HAVING retired from playing inter-county football in late 2017, Lacey went straight into Declan Bonner’s backroom team for the following season.
By the time he stepped away from that role three years later, plans were already afoot to launch an Academy.
The county’s then-Games Development manager Aaron Kyles presented the idea to the county executive, including that 2012 Footballer of the Year Karl Lacey should be the man to head it up.
The appointment of Lacey, confirmed in January 2021, was seen as significant.
Donegal’s most decorated footballer in history, the Sport and Coaching Performance lecturer at what was then Letterkenny IT (now the ATU) had the academic credentials, including an MSc in Sports Performance, to go alongside his own sporting experience.
Because of the strength of the school system in the north, particularly in Tyrone and Derry, it was felt that Donegal were being left behind by the time players came to minor, never mind U20.
In their history, Donegal have only ever contested one All-Ireland minor final, and won just seven Ulster titles, one fewer than Antrim.
They’ve won eight provincial U20 titles, only two of those since 1995. Their 1982 and ’87 All-Irelands at the grade backboned the 1992 team.
But it was felt that it was all too ad-hoc, that the structures for consistency didn’t exist.
One of the first things they did when the Academy launched was to set up partnerships with 14 schools around Donegal and put voluntary S&C coaches in to each of them once a week.
Last May, Wexford GAA announced they were committing €385,000 over five years to an almost identical scheme.
Donegal had theirs running completely free of charge, with S&C coaches travelling to schools for 6am sessions without getting a cent.
Rather than traditional one-off trials for development squads, players were given a minimum of six weeks to prove themselves. Things like growth and maturation were monitored, so that players who were perhaps 11 months younger than others in the same age group were assessed accordingly.
A request was made for minor club games to be kept away from Friday nights last year to allow players to train and play with development squads on Saturdays.
Minor games were set for Friday night until the evenings disappeared, at which point they were moved to Saturdays.
In April, the club games clashed with the Buncrana Cup, one of the national fixture dates set by Croke Park.
The Academy coaches named 20 players that couldn’t play for their club then that night, which caused ructions.
Club fixtures were postponed the weekend of Development Squad games in May. There were no clashes in June or July.
To alleviate the pressure, Donegal’s U15 and U16 training moved to Monday nights after the clash in April.
Covid meant plans took a while to get off the ground but on the whole, things ran fairly smoothly for the first year-and-a-half.
In the months before he resigned, Lacey had been working on a coaching curriculum that would be shared with clubs to help improve the standard of coaching across the board.
The Academy had a budget of €320,000, agreed with members of the executive in January. In total, the Academy cost around €280,000 to run for 2022.
Those figures include spending on Donegal’s U17 and U20 teams, as well as hurling. The figure for football was around €240,000.
It included around €65,000 on gear and equipment. Spend on that would have greatly reduced in 2023.
In 2021, development squads had played games in their club jerseys while wearing bibs over the top.
Lacey was the only coach paid expenses, understood to have come to around €25,000 for the year. The rest were all completely voluntary.
Their figures would be towards the top end across Ireland, although accounting practices differ across the country.
Many counties, including Donegal, lump all development squads, U17s and U20s in along with adult county teams under ‘Team Expenses’.
Tyrone, by comparison, spent €209,000 (£187,000) on their academy, U17s and U20s combined in 2022, with the development squads accounting for just over £40,000.
When Karl Lacey requested €1,000 at the end of the year for a meal to thank coaches for their work, it was refused by the county management committee, who noted that “all sub committees and club committees are also providing their time voluntary to Donegal GAA”.
They instead approved five €100 vouchers for O’Neills to be raffled between all their volunteers, excluding the executive itself.
Lacey had repeatedly requested updates on what the Academy had spent throughout the year, but received no information.
He had asked if a liaison could be appointed between him and the county board to directly oversee the finances, but was refused.
As the year went on, it became increasingly difficult for Lacey to get any information as regards where they stood with the budget.
In repeated emails, he requested a breakdown of the costs in order to prepare for 2023 but never received that information prior to stepping down.
He had also never received a job specification for the Head of Academy role, despite assurances that he would.
WHEN Jim McGuinness took charge of Donegal at the end of 2010, he rang Donal Barrett about heading up a fundraising committee for the team.
Barrett liaised with Seamus Carr in London to bring in money from across the globe for the seniors’ training fund.
In his autobiography, Until Victory Always, McGuinness said: “People from across the world donated money to the training fund. Their only stipulation was that the money did not go to the county board.”
The county board’s finances are of ongoing concern. They were one of few counties in Ireland to post a financial loss in their 2022 accounts, with a deficit over just over €130,000 for the year.
Out of their total income of just under €1.6m last year, Donegal took in just €14,000 in fundraising, which the Academy raised through a raffle.
In Declan Bonner’s first year in charge of the senior team, they held a training camp in Belfast. The team trained at the Dub and stayed at a nearby hotel.
A member of the travelling party had to make a substantial payment on a personal credit card in order for the hotel to allow them to check in. That money was subsequently reimbursed.
In an interview with the Inishowen Independent shortly after convention in December, former Donegal player and assistant manager Paul McGonigle, who had run for chairman but lost out to Fergus McGee, said that Donegal GAA was “in a very poor place structurally, culturally and financially.”
“From a financial perspective, we’re technically insolvent with a net current liability position which presents significant financial risk,” said McGonigle, an accountant by trade. He added a call for a full strategic review of how the county was operating.
On the ground, coaches believe that the collapse of the Academy as they knew it was not down to money.
At county convention in late 2021, Michael McGeehin was appointed as Donegal’s coaching officer.
Sport Ireland's Director of Coaching, the Letterkenny man has worked with various county teams down the years. He was Donegal’s coach during John Joe Doherty’s time as manager.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Donegal Democrat’s Alan Foley just before Christmas last year, Lacey made a comment about the lack of close ties between the Academy and the role of the coaching officer.
“The academy would hope that some of the existing roles in the county executive would form closer ties with the academy going forward, particularly the role of County coaching officer, which to date has been quite adrift of the academy and its functions. A clear pathway between both bodies would be healthy and supportive to create a strong link to the senior county set up," Lacey said back in December.
Among the bugbear of coaches was that, despite being invited, neither McGeehin or then-chairman Mick McGrath attended any of the review meetings held by coaches at the end of each six-week coaching block.
Fergus McGee was appointed as chairman at last year’s convention, taking over after McGrath had served his five years.
A long-serving member of the county board in various roles, McGee inherited the situation. It’s felt by many of those close to it that he has done his best to try and smooth the issues over.
However, in a management meeting in December, he referenced Lacey’s comments in the Democrat as being a “public attack on our coaching officer by the Academy director”.
He told those present that “an attack on any member is an attack on us all”.
In the same meeting, McGeehin “outlined his involvement and his support to the Academy at all times”, the minutes read.
When asked about the Academy in his own interview with the Democrat’s Peter Campbell in January, Fergus McGee said: “Some see it as a very positive thing. Some ask what is the percentage that actually made it to the senior ranks. I heard the figures recently and they are so, so low. But that’s for another day, one of the challenges ahead.”
In the latter part of 2022, the relationship between the executive and Karl Lacey completely broke down.
The athletic programme being delivered through the schools was halted, despite being provided free-of-charge.
Coaches signed off 2022 with players and parents by saying they would be in contact early in the New Year about getting up and going again.
By then Lacey had been informed of a “360 review” of the Academy and its structures that would be conducted by Michael McGeehin.
The statement released by Donegal GAA upon accepting Lacey’s resignation said there was a need for “good control that doesn’t hinder, but supports achievement. This needs to be fair and transparent.”
One of the executive’s big issues was around how the Academy was governed, but this was an issue for Lacey as well. He had requested greater support and governance throughout the year and was supportive of the idea of a review.
Aaron Kyles left his position as Games Development Manager in September.
He and his replacement Declan Bushell – a clubmate of Lacey’s and current Masters student at ATU – were both technically Lacey’s direct line manager, but neither felt comfortable operating as such. They had good relationships with Lacey and both allowed him to run the Academy his way.
The previous coaching officer, Conor McDermott, had done likewise.
McGeehin, who accepted a logistics role on Paddy Carr’s management having been on the appointment committee to pick the manager, wasn’t initially heavily involved in the Academy’s day-to-day when he took over.
After the review process began, Lacey was informed that McGeehin would take overall responsibility for the Academy and that his line manager would be Declan Bushell, who would then report to McGeehin.
Lacey was called to a meeting in early January with senior members of the executive to discuss the contents of his interview with the Democrat.
In what was effectively a disciplinary meeting, Lacey was asked to publically apologise to McGeehin for his comments, which he declined to do.
News broke on February 3 that Karl Lacey had stepped down as Head of the Academy, saying in a message to coaches that he felt “sad that we have not been supported in continuing to impact our young players.”
BEFORE his resignation was accepted on February 27, with hopes of a resolution still alive, Karl Lacey met with Fergus McGee again.
At a subsequent executive meeting that evening, a decision was made to accept Lacey’s resignation, and the wording of the statement that followed was thrashed out.
The statement said they were “reluctantly” accepting Lacey’s resignation. Donegal GAA added that “there is absolutely no suggestion or inference that there was any malintent or neglect on the part of the Head of Academy or the coaches.”
In a fiery meeting with club delegates on Monday night past, McGeehin’s plans for the Academy for 2023 and beyond were outlined.
Some coaches had been approached about returning. It’s understood those who were approached will not go back.
Clubs were told the Academy will return on March 18. An advertisement will go out for a new part-time head of the Academy.
The 30-plus coaches that left along with Lacey will have their own individual decision to make but it’s expected that very few will return.
Writing in the Donegal News, Declan Bonner called it “a huge blow for football in Donegal”, adding that he “[didn’t] think communication levels have been anywhere near where they should have been.
“We have got to get him back and whatever needs to be done, just has to happen,” Bonner concluded.
1992 All-Ireland winning captain Anthony Molloy hit out at the lack of transparency from the county board around it, calling it “a very, very backwards step for Donegal.”
In his Irish Daily Star column last week, Eamon McGee, who is part of the U20 management, likened the situation to how Donegal had turned away Martin McHugh in the mid-90s.
McGee said that ousting Lacey was “as if Donegal got a winning Lotto ticket and decided to flush it down the toilet.”
The Donegal Academy is making plans to resume soon under McGeehin’s watch.
There appears to be no hope of Karl Lacey returning in the near future.
* When contacted by The Irish News on Wednesday, Karl Lacey, Michael McGeehin and former chairman Mick McGrath all declined to comment. Fergus McGee could not be contacted on Thursday.