As Paddy Lacey stood in the dock at Bristol Crown Court he knew what was coming.
The judge had told him as soon as he was brought before him that Lacey would be heading to prison before the day was out, that a strict sentence would be passed down for his crime of being in possession of Class A drugs and counterfeit cash at Glastonbury Festival.
Lacey, in his own words, didn’t care. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about breaking the law or that he had let his loved ones down, it was that he had reached the end of his tether in life and was so low that he had let go of any hope of joy.
This was July 2017. A month before Lacey had been arrested at Glastonbury he had been banned for 14 months from professional football, the sport that had consumed him since he was seven and that his world had revolved around.
His ban arrived from him testing positive for cocaine while playing for Accrington Stanley. A bad decision was followed by another bad decision and within a short space of time Lacey, who had been catching the eye in the EFL with Stanley and had been tipped for big things, was facing a 16-month prison sentence.
“As soon as I stood in front of him the judge told me that I would be going to prison,” Lacey told the ECHO.
“You’d think you’d feel something, whether it was fear or something. But I felt nothing, I just stood there, I was empty inside and I just wasn’t bothered by what was to come.
“I was so low that there was no further I could sink, I’d given up. My life’s work had vanished, the thing that was all I had known since I was seven, gone. All my hopes and dreams were gone.
“I just wallowed in sadness, my chin was on my chest, I was ready to give up. I’d dreamed of playing in the Premier League and always wanted to make my family proud but here I was getting sent to prison. There was no further I could fall.”
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Ever since he was a boy he had been a talented footballer who stood out from the crowd. His father had always encouraged him to follow his footballing dream.
It was a journey that took him to Sheffield Wednesday, where he progressed through the ranks before a switch to Bradford City.
He failed to make an appearance at senior level for either club, instead dropping into non-league football with the likes of Barrow before being spotted by Accrington Stanley boss John Coleman, a man with a reputation of finding diamonds outside of the EFL 92.
He soon impressed for Stanley as a 23-year-old after signing a one-year deal in the summer of 2016. He played in League Two for Coleman’s men and featured at the London Stadium in a League Cup game against West Ham United.
He had it all going for him but the warning signs were already there.
“I was never happy when I was coming through,” admitted lifelong Liverpool fan Lacey.
“If anything I was depressed for a long time before it all went wrong. I would have this social anxiety. When you are a top player coming through you have everyone interested in everything you are doing and you feel this pressure all the time.
“When I would play well I would feel I was like Ronaldo or something, but when I’d have a bad game I would get so low. You can’t be like that in football, you can’t be sky high and rock bottom, you have to stay level headed.
“I wasn’t able to do that before, but I’m older now and I’ve grown as a man.
“When it happened, when I did what I did that got me banned, I was in this headspace where if I wasn’t playing it felt like the world was ending. I’d been playing well at right back and we had this lad come in on loan and he started ahead of me.
“I just lost my head, when I look back I realise how stupid that was.”
Four years is a long time. The forced solitude of prison, where he spent five months before being released with an electronic tag, provided time for reflection, something Lacey needed.
It also provided him with the clarity that he required to make the best of a bad situation, to make plans for the kind of man he would be when he emerged from prison.
“You know, 23 hours a day locked up on your own tends to give you quite a bit of time to reflect, and there is only so many push ups and workouts that you can do to occupy your mind,” said Lacey, who had won the Sky Bet EFL League Two Goal of the Month in September of 2016 shortly before his football career would implode.
“I read a lot. I’d read what I could. It helped me. You spend a lot of time alone with your thoughts and you have this forced reflection, but I knew that I needed to change who I was when I came out.
“I didn’t want to be this lad who just chucked it all away, I needed to put my energy into something that would make me happy, because that was the most important thing.
“When John Coleman phoned me to tell me that I’d failed a drugs test my world just collapsed around me. What was worse was having to tell my dad, someone who was so proud that I had made it as a footballer, that I would be getting banned from playing.
“He told me how stupid I had been but he immediately became my Dad. All the pride he had in the football, the most important thing became me and getting me on the right path again.”
Lacey got back into football upon his release, playing briefly at Southport and Stalybridge Celtic before landing at National League North side Chester in September of last year.
He has found a home at the Deva Stadium and he has also been able to follow another one of his great passions; boxing.
“I loved boxing growing up and came from a family of boxers but my Dad wanted me to concentrate on my football,” said Lacey.
“But when I got out I told him that I wanted to follow that path. I’d boxed at amateur level for a few years and been around a few pro gyms, so some of the coaches I knew said that they felt I had what it takes to be a professional.
“Covid meant that I couldn’t explore that for a while but once I was allowed to they stuck to their word and I’ve made a go at it.
“It’s come around quicker that I thought it would but I’m ready for it and thankful for the opportunity. When I’m playing I’ve always felt most at home when its a big game and the pressure’s on. That’s no different in boxing.
“I’ve probably got a little bit of a head start on some. When boxers aren’t training their weight can balloon a bit sometimes, but as a footballer I never slow down on my fitness, I don’t have any down time and always stay as fit as I can.
“I’ve never once been too tired or asked the gaffers to miss a session. I’m putting my heart and soul into both football and boxing.”
Lacey won on his professional debut last month, beating Stankon Jermelic, before claiming victory number two against Pavel Albrecht at the Olimpia in Liverpool on November 26.
On December 11 he will step through the ropes in front of a home crowd at Liverpool’s M&S Bank Arena on an Eddie Hearn bill that will be live on television and include the likes of Conor Benn and Katie Taylor.
For a man who was at his lowest ebb, caring little for his own life and what became of it, he has managed to find a path back to football and been able to follow a lifelong ambition in boxing.
“I’m not the man I was then, we all grow up,” said Lacey, whose two younger brothers, Luis and Shea, are promising young footballers in the academies of Barnsley and Manchester United, respectively.
“Look, I can’t hide from what I did and I have to carry that with me. There was a long time where I didn’t want anyone to mention my past and I didn’t want to talk about what had happened.
“But I can at least learn from it and turn it into a positive. I know I should really resent prison but it was the start of a new life for me.
“I’m 28 now and I hope I’ll have kids one day. There will come a time when they might Google my name and I don’t want that to be the only thing that defines me as a person.
“I want them to see that there was more to me that than, that I had the strength to turn it into a positive and come back stronger.
“I’ve got two brothers who are better footballers than I ever was or will be. I try and use what I have learned to help them cope with football, making sure that they find joy in it and don’t get too high or too low.
“I can’t believe how quickly all this has happened with the boxing, but I’m just embracing it all and enjoying myself at last.”
Football has also had its love rekindled in Lacey’s heart.
Having arrived at Chester under managers Bernard Morley and Anthony Johnson, Lacey, who also works as a carpet fitter and floor layer by trade, became a popular figure in his first season before it was cruelly cut short through a serious knee injury that ended up requiring ACL reconstructive surgery.
For that operation, Chester fans dug into their pockets, as well as the wider football family, to ensure that Lacey could get the operation he needed to get back playing. That has happened sooner than many expected, and so as his rise in the professional boxing ranks.
“Chester fans are on this boxing journey with me whether they like it or not,” he said. “I’ll never forget what they did for me. Raising £5,000 for me to get the operation blew me away.
“Best fans and club in non-league football, no question. There’s a load of Chester fans who are coming to watch me fight as well. They’re an amazing bunch.
“Honestly, I am the happiest I have ever been. If the football and boxing doesn’t work out then it won’t be for a lack of trying and at least I can say I gave it a go and never gave in.
“I’m still working on the tools and have a little shop and business I’ve set up so I’m happy. Being happy is worth more than anything. I’ve never felt better, and I mean that.”
Anyone wishing to purchase tickets can contact Lacey directly via Twitter direct message @paddy_lacey. Tickets are priced between £40 and £300.