Thursday, 26 November 2015

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Behind glass

Today Derek Lacey commentateson his 500th Carlisle United match. He tells Roger Lytollis why one game in particular will always stand out.

So... deep, deep, deep, I make it 60 seconds. Jimmy Glass knocks it long. It comes now to Bagshaw. Bagshaw back to Anthony. Up to Stevens... and the ball goes out now for a corner to Carlisle United – will they have time to take it?...

Derek Lacey has commentated on 499 Carlisle United matches for BBC Radio Cumbria. The Blues have been through more dizzying highs and lows and nausea-inducing twists and turns than any other Football League club during that decade. But Lacey and his listeners need not spend long in the archives to conjure up the most memorable moment. It came at Brunton Park nine years ago, courtesy of the last-minute swing of a goalkeeper’s right boot.

 Referee looks at his watch... and here comes Jimmy Glass! Carlisle United goalkeeper Jimmy Glass is coming up for the kick – everyone is going up... there isn’t one player in the Carlisle half!”

 This afternoon’s game at the County Ground, Swindon, is unlikely to rival May 8, 1999 for drama. But match number 500 will doubtless still be imbued with Lacey’s trademark frenzied enthusiasm.

When the British Broadcasting Corporation’s founders stressed the importance of impartiality, they probably did not envisage Derek Lacey screaming his delight whenever Carlisle United scored a goal.

The BBC’s elders presumably had their minds on things less passionate and partisan than association football. “The BBC sometimes tell you when you go on courses ‘The BBC is impartial’,” says Lacey. “I don’t think you can be impartial when you’re commentating on your local team. Part and parcel of that is the passion you show.

“In the early days it used to be a conflict. I used to see myself as a supporter standing in the paddock commentating. Then I realised you have got to be objective. I try to tone it down if the opposition are playing well. But the conflict is still there.”

Lacey’s commentaries do dip a toe in neutral territory but there is a tendency to leap into the blue side of the divide whenever Carlisle United cross the halfway line. This is a man with no time for what he calls “straight” commentaries – “A passes to B passes to C” – is how he dismisses that genre. “You’ve got to have a bit of individuality. My commentary is probably my personality. I like to have a laugh, a bit of banter.”

Talk to Carlisle United fans and you’ll find some who love and some who loathe Lacey’s style. “Bumbling” is a word occasionally used, and that’s by his admirers. During a Derek Lacey commentary Stockport may well mutate into Scunthorpe and heaven help us if there’s more than one player with the same surname.

His self-confessed most embarrassing gaffe came several years ago at Luton. Carlisle midfielder Steve Soley scored in the first half. Lacey watched the ball cross the line and scribbled down a description. At half-time he announced that Carlisle were good value for their lead, before discovering to his horror that the goal he’d spent the past 20 minutes discussing had been instantly disallowed.

“People were phoning in saying why wasn’t this goal on Teletext? Ten minutes into the second half, Steve Soley did score. So I was right; I just had hindsight.”

He may mean foresight but, as is usually the case with Lacey, you get the idea.

His description of events at Exeter City was enlivened by the sound of a club official applying fly spray to the press box ceiling.

“All the scribes left and my co-commentator Gavin Skelton and me were left there with flies dropping on our heads. Gavin had a number-one haircut at the time. It looked like his head was covered in currants.”

Luton and Exeter – two of hundreds of long-haul journeys Lacey has made on behalf of Carlisle fans listening back home in Cumbria and all around the world. During his 10 seasons in the job United have had five narrow escapes from relegation, one plummet into non-League, two promotions, one play-off bid and, now, a surge towards the Championship. No wonder he gets so excited.

Lacey, 65, grew up in north London as an Arsenal fan. His job with the Royal Mail brought him to Carlisle in 1969. Lacey felt an immediate connection with the city and its football team, investing in a Waterworks End season ticket. He joined the NHS and presented a sports programme on the Cumberland Infirmary’s radio station, which led to freelance work at BBC Radio Carlisle, as it was then called. Lacey became the station’s Carlisle United commentator in October 1998.

The club was struggling. The season ended with Carlisle needing to win their final match to have any hope of staying in the Football League. They had recently sold their goalkeeper, signing an emergency replacement called Jimmy Glass.

“I didn’t sleep the night before the last game,” recalls Lacey. “I got up at half past two in the morning and drove to Southwaite Services. I bought a bacon sarnie and a cup of coffee. Two other lads were there – Carlisle fans who couldn’t sleep. The three of us sat there ’til five o’clock in the morning,”

Fast forward 11 hours and 55 minutes and Lacey is in Brunton Park’s commentary box, preparing to read the last rites on Carlisle’s 71-year Football League life. Then the impossible happens. And he has to describe it.

“When Jimmy Glass scored I just forgot everything else. It just went on a personal note. I turned to my co-commentator Graham Moss and said ‘I’m sorry, you’re going to have to carry on.’”

Nine years on the memory still produces a hint of moisture in his eyes.

The lowest point came five years after Glass’s astonishing intervention, when Carlisle were relegated to the Conference. “On the day of the last League game, at Doncaster, all I was thinking was ‘I don’t want to be here’.

“It was horrible. I was thinking ‘One day, just maybe we might be back.’”

United did bounce back but the memory of years of struggle still remains: “It’s difficult to describe the trauma of those early years. Every game you went to, you wondered if you were going to get a point. Now you’re disappointed if you only get a point.

“This is why I appreciate what’s going on at the moment, and I think supporters should as well. The question you’ve got to ask is, does the city of Carlisle and the county of Cumbria want Championship football? The hardcore 5,000 will be there but what about the other 8,000 who turned up for the Leeds game? Where are they?”

Strong words from a man who has been accused of going easy on United’s managers in post-match interviews, but utterly consistent with his unbending support for team and club: “You never say to a manager ‘Why don’t you play so and so?’ I don’t think it would be right to query the tactics. And I don’t believe in pillorying individual players.”

The only fall out Lacey has had with anyone at the club was with former manager Paul Simpson, who was unimpressed by the commentator’s suggestion that Paul Arnison was a better player than David Beherall. “You can pick the team,” Simpson told him. They soon made up.

“Before I came here I thought it would be lovely to come to a town where there’s only one team and you can support your local team with pride,” says Lacey. “My children Stephen and Helen are born and bred Cumbrians. I think after 39 years in Carlisle I’m entitled to be called a Cumbrian.”


Well, well... and the corner kick comes in... and... the goalkeeper’s punch... oh... Jimmy Glass! Jimmy Glass! Jimmy Glass, the goalkeeper, has scored a goal for Carlisle United! Oooooh... there’s a pitch invasion! There is a pitch invasion! The referee has been swamped – they’re bouncing on the crossbar!

“If I was doing it today I’d probably have done it more professionally instead of the emotional side of it,” says Lacey. “But then again... people remember it.”


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