From the past or present, we catch up with a different Fulham personality. This week, Dennis Turner talks to John Lacy.
A contestant was asked on a recent edition of Mastermind who was the first player to have his transfer fee determined by an independent tribunal. The answer was John Lacy, when he moved from Fulham to Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 1978. The fact that we were disappointed with the arbitrators’ decision of a £200,000 fee, at the time a Fulham record, shows the value we placed on our tall, dominating central defender.
By the time of his switch to White Hart Lane, John had made just over 200 appearances for us since his debut as a 21-year-old in 1972. But his route to top-class football was not the conventional one.
“I was born in Liverpool, and grew up an Everton supporter,” he explained. “I wanted to be a footballer and played for Liverpool and Lancashire Schoolboys as well as for Marine, which along with Skelmersdale, was one of the two best non-League sides on Merseyside. But no professional club showed any real interest and I was doing quite well at school. And so, at the age of 18, I came to London, to read Economics at the London School of Economics, and not to play professional football.
“It was exciting being in London at that age, and it was something of a golden era for the LSE. I enjoyed the studying, but it wasn’t too onerous and left plenty of time to play football. I represented London and British Universities and we played against high-level opposition, such as Oxford United, Cambridge United, the Isthmian League and teams from Fulham and West Ham United.
“The London University home ground was, of course, Motspur Park, which now houses new owners. But at college, our coach was George Cohen and I was one of three he took along to the Cottage for a trial. I suspect I was the makeweight and the person they were really interested in was Stephen Edmondson, who is now a leading heart surgeon.”
Makeweight or not, Fulham saw enough in John to sign him as an amateur while he completed his studies. There was never any conflict between getting his degree and playing football. “Fulham were very good,” John admitted. “They didn’t put any pressure on me to give up university and encouraged me to finish my studies. Perhaps they weren’t sure enough about me to push but I was happy to combine getting my degree with playing. I was still an amateur and was getting some games in the reserves. The club also put me out on loan for six months at Kingstonian.
“I signed professional a year later, in June 1971, once I graduated. I don’t suppose many modern students will get the chance I had to get a degree and play in top-class football. It might happen in the lower divisions but the big clubs these days want youngsters from such an early age and expect them to dedicate their teenage years to football so they’re ready to play in the Premier League in their early 20s. It would be very difficult to combine the demands of modern football with studying for a degree these days, although in my time, Liverpool had a couple of graduates, Steve Heighway and Brian Hall, and there was Alan Gowling at Manchester United. But Fulham were very understanding and I appreciated that.”
In his seven seasons as a professional at the Cottage, John worked under three managers, Bill Dodgin, Alec Stock and Bobby Campbell. “I didn’t really see much of Bill Dodgin,” he explained. “I was in the Reserves most of his last season and Terry Medwin was our coach. I liked him a lot and saw him again recently at White Hart Lane when he came up from South Wales for Swansea City’s game against Spurs. I got my break during Alec Stock’s time, an away defeat at Cardiff City in November 1972. I must admit, I was a bit concerned when he signed Paul Went, an experienced central defender, for a big fee but the two of us ended up playing side by side in the team and then Paul was sold on to Portsmouth after only 18 months or so.
“But Alec was not really a training-ground manager and the big influence on the players in those days was coach Bill Taylor. He was top class and it was so sad when he died at such a young age. I only had one full season under Bobby Campbell. He was also a good coach and with the players he had, the Club should have been pushing for promotion. Quite a few, such as Ray Evans, Tony Gale, Richard Money, Terry Bullivant and myself, moved on to play in the top flight, and others like Gordon Davies and Gerry Peyton, became established internationals. I thought the Club would have done better.
“Without doubt, the highlight of my time at Fulham was the FA Cup run in 1975. Beating Everton, the club I had supported as a boy, in the Fifth Round was special. Looking back, it was a shame that getting to the Final happened so early in my career. In those days, the FA Cup and the Wembley Final was seen as the pinnacle of a player’s career, and something exceptional for those of us in the old Second Division. I was only 23 when we got there and I think I might have appreciated it more if I had been older.
“Although we didn’t play badly on the day, we were all so disappointed to have been beaten. We had knocked West Ham out of the League Cup earlier in the season and gone to league leaders Everton and beaten them on their own ground on the way to Wembley. We really thought we could win but, on the day, it just didn’t happen for us.
“This was the season that I first played alongside Bobby Moore and I have to say that everything that was said about him at the time, and recently to mark the 20th anniversary of his death, is true, and then some more. He was absolutely terrific at everything, as a player and as a man, and endlessly patient with inexperienced players like me. It was a genuine privilege to have played alongside him, and he, along with Alan Mullery in midfield, were the inspirations for that cup run. Once Bobby retired, Tony Gale came into the side and we could all see from the start that he was something special and would go to the very top.”
When the hopes raised by the cup run failed to materialise, John decided he wanted to have a crack at top-flight football and in 1978 he moved on to Spurs. “I really enjoyed my time at the Cottage,” he said. “I have a great deal of affection for Fulham. It was a great club for youngsters to learn, it believed in the best things about football and I love going back there now. Although the Club is in the big time, and really feels like a Premier League club, it manages to retain the old values and understands the importance of the past and its traditions.
“When I arrived at White Hart Lane, Spurs had just got back in the old First Division after a year in the Second. Manager Keith Burkinshaw had just signed Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa, who that summer had helped Argentina to the World Cup. These were the days when there were virtually no foreigners in English football and so bringing them in created a lot of excitement. They also added something extra to the team and were very skilful individuals.
“I did find it difficult to settle at first and I was bitterly disappointed to have missed the 1981 FA Cup Final against Manchester City. I had played most of that season, and in virtually every game up to Wembley but then I ruptured a thigh muscle and was out for six months. Spurs bought Paul Rice from Luton Town, a very good player, but I did win my place back.”
After five years and 174 outings, including another Wembley appearance, this time in the Charity Shield, for the North London Lillywhites, John, at the age of 32, was ready for his next move. “I could have gone to play in the US and I had an offer from Manchester City,” he recalled. “But I signed for Crystal Palace, largely because Alan Mullery was the manager. It was not the best move of my career. Injuries were starting to take their toll and I only played about 30 games in 15 months when I went to Sweden to play for Gothenburg.
“I came across Roy Hodgson when I was there and reminded him of it when I saw him recently. He is absolutely top drawer; a very, very good manager and an exceedingly nice man who has always got time for people. I really hope he does well with England.
“After Sweden, I went non-League, with Barnet, St Albans City, where John Mitchell was on the board, and finally Wivenhoe. I played until I was past 40. I did some managing and coaching, and thought I might like to stay in football. Peter Mellor and I did our coaching badges together at Fulham in the 1970s but I retired in the early 1990s. A friend of mine steered me to a company in the private sector and I eventually spent 18 years working for Anglian, a home improvements business. They were a good company to work for, they treated me very well and I enjoyed my time there, but now, at the age of 61, I have stepped back from full-time work.”
The last few years have been very tough for John and without any trace of self-pity, he filled in the background. “I’d always planned to retire at 60. I knew I couldn’t keep working at the same intensity and my wife and I planned our retirement a few years in advance. Then she became ill, and got steadily worse, to the extent I retired earlier than planned to look after her. Sadly, she has now died, my children have grown up and there’s just me.
“But I keep myself busy, and I’m involved in football again, but in a small way. I do some part-time work for the PFA and for two seasons I’ve been part of the White Hart Lane matchday hospitality team, rather like Les Strong at the Cottage. I look after a box or a lounge and several old players, like Martin Peters and Martin Chivers, are also there on matchdays. I really enjoy it, the involvement and buzz of matchdays. And Spurs is such a big club in terms of both its fanbase and facilities, and they understand the connection supporters have with the club’s recent past.
“Having seen Spurs play this season, I have to say how well Mousa Dembẻlẻ has fitted in. He’s an outstanding player and took very little time to settle. I think Clint Dempsey has found it harder because it’s not obvious what his best position is. But he scores goals, and that will endear him to any group of supporters.”
Talking to John, it’s apparent that people like him are needed in football. He’s educated and intelligent, with a real sense of perspective on the game. But not necessarily as a manager or coach. Given his academic background and business experience, he could well have been a very successful chief executive had he been 10 years younger or had the serious television money come into football earlier.
Football does seem to be an industry in which the commercial potential and the money in the sport have run well ahead of the professionalism of much of the infrastructure that supports it. Only now are the real professionals replacing the well-meaning enthusiasts but it’s a role that probably would have suited John down to the ground.
Asked what he missed most about playing football, John had a most original and interesting answer. “There is,” he said, “about 30-40 seconds on a matchday when the team leaves the dressing room and come on to the pitch. Very slowly, you hear the noise from the crowd build up, the smell of the grass in your nostrils and it leads to an adrenalin rush like nothing else in life. I still envy the players when I see them come out today. I know exactly what they’re feeling and it’s an emotional experience you can only get in football. I really miss that feeling.”