'Shoot for the stars!' - Ex-Liverpool footballer-turned-boxer Paddy Lacey's incredible story of drugs, prison and redemption

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Paddy Lacey 2021
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Five years ago, the former Reds trainee was banned from football and heading to jail, but next month he will box at the M&S Bank Arena

“Dad, I’ve got something to tell you…”

It happened nearly five years ago, but Paddy Lacey can still remember the conversation like it was yesterday.

It was a Monday night, December 2016, and Liverpool had just beaten Everton at Goodison Park. Lacey and his father had watched the game together, celebrating Sadio Mane’s stoppage-time winner wildly. 

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Almost immediately, though, the mood changed. 

It was confession time.

“I had to tell him I’d failed a drugs test and that I was going to be banned from football,” Lacey tells GOAL. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I knew it would crush him.”

He was 23 at the time, playing for Accrington Stanley in League Two. He had made his debut against Burnley in the League Cup, been on the bench against West Ham at the London Stadium and picked up the Football League Goal of the Month award. He was playing well and attracting interest from clubs higher up the pyramid. He was flying.

And then, all of a sudden, he wasn’t. 

Tested after a game at Hartlepool, Lacey was found to have traces of cocaine in his system. He had taken drugs on a Christmas night out the previous week, but hoped he would avoid detection. In his own words, he had “f*cked up, big time.”

“I was a mess,” he says. “I look back now and I can’t believe it. I let so many people down.”

In May 2017, Lacey was given a 14-month ban after a Football Association hearing at Wembley. His Accrington contract, naturally, was terminated. 

“That train back from London was a lonely place,” he says. “I’d worked so hard to get myself a career, and I knew I’d chucked it away.”

If that was bad, what followed was even worse.

A few weeks after his ban was confirmed, Lacey was arrested at the Glastonbury festival having been found in possession of cocaine, MDMA and more than £500 in counterfeit notes.

“I was in self-destruct mode,” he says. “Things had just spiralled and I couldn’t stop them. That was me at my lowest.”

Despite character references from the likes of Accrington boss John Coleman and legendary local boxing coach Alan Lynch, he was jailed for 16 months.

“The judge was spot on,” Lacey says. “He said I was throwing away chances that other people weren’t getting. I wasn’t some kid off an estate with no alternatives. I had choices and I was making the wrong ones. I needed to be punished. I can see that now.”

Paddy Lacey Chester 2021

Lacey spent five months in prison before being released on an electronic tag, just in time to spend Christmas with his family. 

But if he thought his luck was about to change, he was wrong.

“When I came out my mate asked me to play for his Sunday league team, Dovecot, just to get a game in and start myself back up,” he remembers. 

“I went down to play, and in the game I did this innocuous turn and felt something pop in my knee. It was horrible. Then, as I fell to the ground I landed on my arm and dislocated my elbow!

“So I’m banned from professional football, I’ve come out of jail, played half an hour of Sunday league and I’ve ended up with a bust knee and a bust arm! It definitely wasn’t my year, was it?”

Lacey, foolishly, chose to play on despite his knee issue. "I was desperate to get back playing, so I just got it strapped up and got on with it," he says. He trained with Accrington once his ban expired in February 2018, and soon after he was invited for a trial with Yeovil Town.

“The first day I got there, I hit a shot and came down on my left leg, and the knee just buckled,” he says. 

“I went to see a specialist and he said I’d torn my anterior cruciate ligament. Nine months out. I could have cried.”

Lacey underwent ACL reconstructive surgery, but was soon back in hospital suffering from Sepsis, a potentially life-threatening reaction to infection. 

“It was scary,” he says. “I lost nearly a stone, my skin was yellow, I couldn’t eat, I was sweating all day and night. I ended up collapsing in the bathroom. I was in the hospital for weeks.”

Lacey is keen to point out that, despite everything, his is no hard-luck story. It may serve as a warning to young footballers about the pitfalls which can await, but it should also be seen as a source of inspiration, given what has happened since he hit rock bottom.

He is back playing now, patrolling midfield for Chester in the National League North (English football's sixth tier) while making a good living as boss of his own carpet-fitting company in Bootle. 

And he has got a third career too, having turned professional as a boxer. Next month, he will fight at Liverpool’s M&S Bank Arena, on a Matchroom card which features the likes of Conor Benn and Katie Taylor, Ireland’s undisputed world lightweight champion.

“Madness, eh?” Lacey says. “Six years ago I went to New York to watch Chris Algieri fight Amir Khan at the Barclays Center. I hadn’t even had an amateur fight then, and now I’m on the same bill as him in my home city. Unbelievable.”

He is happy now, he says. He has confronted his demons, and taken steps to combat what he describes as “the manic highs and lows” of chasing a career in football.

“It was all I ever wanted,” he says. “But I had no idea how to handle things. I’d either be on the ceiling or on the floor, there was no in between. I look back now, and that was always my problem. I couldn’t understand, or control my emotions.

“I’m not dependent on football any more. I love playing and always will, and I love playing for Chester in particular, but I’ve got other things now. I’ve got my business, I’m happy and settled, I’ve got my boxing. I’m playing well for Chester, as well as I have for years, but my mood doesn’t depend on how I do on a Saturday.”

He has seen a lot. He played with Conor Coady and Jon Flanagan as a schoolboy at Liverpool, trained with a Manchester United youth team that included Michael Keane, Jesse Lingard and Ravel Morrison - the best player he ever encountered.

“His ability was just frightening,” he says. “The balance and the skill, he was like Neymar. Incredible player.

“I played with another lad at Bradford, Terry Dixon, who had come through at Tottenham, and in terms of talent he was right up there. He was like Wayne Rooney, a genius, but he had injuries and his head wasn’t right. He never fulfilled his potential, but honestly, what a player!”

Lacey looks back on his own professional career fondly, despite the way it ended. He remembers rowing with Sean Dyche during a practice match for Barrow at Burnley’s training ground, and listening to Coleman slaughter his Accrington players after losing 1-0 at West Ham

“Coley said we were in awe of them, and that he should have brought me on because I don’t care about reputations,” he smiles. 

“I sat there nodding along, knowing I had [Dimitri] Payet’s shirt and [Alvaro] Arbeloa’s shirt stuffed inside my jacket. I think he’d have chinned me if he’d found out!

"But I love Coley. I can remember another time when I had an amateur fight at the Suites hotel in Kirkby. I knocked the lad out in the third round, and afterwards this fella comes up to me and says 'do you play for Accrington?!'

"The next day I turn up for training and Coley says 'Paddy, please tell me you didn't knock some lad out in an amateur boxing fight in Kirkby last night!' He knows everyone in Kirkby, and this fella was his mate! I just said to him 'what are you complaining for? I won!'"

Both of Lacey’s younger brothers play football. Luis, 16, is progressing well at Barnsley while Shea, 14, is viewed as a player of considerable potential at Manchester United. As big brother, Lacey says it is his job to make sure he uses his experiences to help guide them on their respective paths.

“I’ve made all the mistakes, so they don’t have to,” he says. “I know they won’t go down the same paths I did.”

For now, though, the spotlight turns to himself. His pro boxing career started with a four-round win in October, and he is booked in for another tune-up fight at the Liverpool Olympia later this month.

“It’s on a Friday night, and Chester play Curzon Ashton in the FA Trophy the next day,” he says. “I’ve already told the gaffers [Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley] I want to play. They think I’m mad, but I know I can do it.”

He loves Chester, especially ‘Johnno and Bern’, who gained notoriety when they featured on the 'Class Of '92: Out of Their League' documentary having been hired by a group of Manchester United legends to coach Salford City.

“They’re the perfect managers for me,” he says. “They understand me and they support me. They’d be at the Arena to watch my fight, for sure, but unfortunately we are away at Spennymoor that day.

“For me it’s the best club in non-league, Chester. When I did my ACL for the second time [in December 2020], the fans raised £5,000 to help support me through my recovery. Isn’t that unbelievable? I’d run through a brick wall for them now.”

He can’t wait for December 11. He sparred with Liam 'Beefy' Smith, the former world light-middleweight champion, recently, and is relishing the chance to show Eddie Hearn, the biggest promoter in the country, what he can bring to the fight game.

“Eddie’s dad, Barry, nearly signed me for Leyton Orient,” he laughs. “When he confirmed me on this card, I messaged him to say ‘you’ve finally managed to get me!’ 

“I plan to soak up everything. When I made my pro debut at the Olympia, I couldn’t stop smiling, and you can times that by 20 at the Arena.”

So what’s the long-term goal, then?

“I don’t mind saying it; I want to win a world title,” he says. “People will laugh, but why not shoot for the stars?

“I’ve watched other Scouse boxers achieve their dreams. Paul, Stephen, Callum Smith, Beefy, Tony Bellew, David Price, Derry Mathews, Rocky Fielding. They’re my heroes. If they can do it, why can’t I?

“If I fall short, I fall short. No problem. But I’m giving it a right go. I can’t wait.”

And what about his dad, GOAL wonders? How does he feel about his son now?

“Better than he did five years ago, that’s for sure!”

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