Communities

PL30: Palace honour inspirational community coach

By William Bitibiri 2 Nov 2022
PL30 Crystal Palace

Michael Lacey has been mentoring young people in south London for over two decades

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Crystal Palace is Michael Lacey's boyhood club. In football there’s probably no greater acclaim than being recognised by your own club for your achievements, however big, however small.

Lacey has been honoured as Palace's PL Community Captain for over two decades of service to the community he knows and loves.

Starting his work with the Palace For Life Foundation in 1999, Lacey has overseen an evolution of the community local to south London. Susan Patterson-Smith works closely alongside him and is clear on the secrets to his local success.

"It's not just about football coaching," says Patterson-Smith. "It's the role model he’s been to those young people. Throughout the years the Foundation has changed, back then it was football in schools, a bit of mentoring here and there, but now there are so many areas that have grown."

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Susan puts Lacey's success down to one unique trait.

"His consistency is the biggest part," she explains. "Young people need someone who's going to be genuine, consistent and there full stop, and that’s what he’s been."

Lacey grew up in a house with nine children, so working and squabbling together gave him the early groundings he needed to work in a turbulent community setting.

But the rigours of working with a diverse set of children is no trouble for Lacey as many could see themselves represented within Lacey and vice versa.

"They see me as the go-to person," Lacey says. "The kids I've worked with over the years, not just at Palace but the local children and a lot of the guys we had, it wasn't just about football it’s about life. We take any time we can to get them off the streets and get them playing football."

Football being a case of life and death, is a cliché that many are guilty of using loosely, for Lacey it was a reality. At times in the past Lacey would go to Canary Road, known for heightened tensions around rival gangs, and a place where other coaches would avoid, where he created a footballing safe haven.

"No Palace staff have worked there apart from me, they wouldn't go down there because it was terrible, like a war-zone."

Anyone who has been lucky enough to be within walking distance of Selhurst Park will know of the strong connection to family that exists at the club. It's something that Lacey reflects on in his own work. 

Zaha's helping hand

"If you're passionate about young people, they become your family," says Lacey.

With protégés nationwide that Lacey remains in close contact with, his words aren't to be taken lightly.

Wilfried Zaha's electric style and guile on the ball was something that comes as no surprise to Lacey who helped nurture the talent whose style hasn't changed to this day. Lacey's Premier League Kicks sessions gave Zaha a different relaxed environment that was crucial at a young age.

Joe Shields, currently co-director of recruitment and talent at Chelsea, found his beginnings in the game learning from Lacey from the PL Kicks programme and is now a close friend.

Shields played for Lacey at PL Kicks, before going on to be a coach alongside his favourite teenage mentor. His journey to one of the leading positions at a Premier League club also involved him scout for Palace before recruiting for Manchester City's academy.

It all began with some key words of advice from Lacey, "I said 'go express yourself, don't be scared, do what you do. I've got your back.'"

Words so simple yet so profound that they helped a shy boy, become the man he is today.

The reach of Lacey's alumni stretches across various fields but they continue to work impacting the lives of young people. At least two of Lacey's mentees now work locally in education as a deputy headteacher and head of Year 3.

Five years on from being named as a PL Kicks Hero, Lacey is now Palace's Community Captain, what's next for the man who's impacted the lives of hundreds of children in south London? Well, having moved from football coach to coaching the lives of young people, Lacey hopes to mentor another generation of young people.

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