Football: Watching the detective

Stephen Brenkley discovers why little Emley will be relying on their own FA Cop; The third round of the FA Cup is renowned for the minnows who dare not give up the day job. This one wears plain clothes and is reporting for duty
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The Independent Online
It is possible that Detective Constable Neil Lacey will spend this coming Saturday afternoon attempting to catch recidivists. He would prefer it if he was to pass the time, as he plans, attempting to catch West Ham United's prodigious striker John Hartson, but he is aware that crime waits for no copper.

"I should be all right because I've taken leave and my boss is really supportive but if something big happened that would have to alter," he said. "Only last weekend I was getting ready to leave for a game when I found out I had to deal with a case of assault from the night before. I had to ring up the manager to pull out."

Lacey is the wise, wily central defender who, in between solving cases, polices the back four on behalf of this season's most unlikely FA Cup giant-killers, Emley. Having beaten Lincoln City in a replay in a taut second-round tie they now believe with justification that anything is possible when they visit Upton Park in the third round this week. Lacey's ability to ensnare Hartson is likely to be vital.

It will, so long as the South Yorkshire criminal fraternity oblige by not going to work in droves, be the biggest match of a long career in non-league football. Nearly all of it has been played around shifts, first as a PC and for the past four years in the CID.

"I love the work and have never regretted getting into it," he said. "It can be frustrating at times for the usual reasons. You might know who's done a robbery but getting the evidence is a different matter. Still, there are enough of them in Doncaster prison at the moment to make it look like Mexborough town centre."

The DC, 33, works in Mexborough as part of a team of 16 detectives covering that part of the county. He joined the force 12 years ago when he decided he was not about to make it as a pro footballer. Brought up in Barnsley, the son of a miner, he had done the rounds of League clubs as talented youngsters do and was at York and Doncaster during good spells. He never broke into the first team.

"I think my dad's probably more disappointed than me that I didn't make it but I felt I had to make a decision to do something with the rest of my life if it wasn't going to be football," he said. "I would have liked to play even one game in the Football League, just to say I'd done it, but this match against West Ham makes up for that."

Lacey has played non-league football to a high standard throughout his time in the police. He started at Frickley and had spells at Gateshead and Goole before moving to Emley three seasons ago. He did so to rejoin Ronnie Glavin, his Frickley manager. There is a mutual trust between the pair which so often exists in the most successful teams. Not the least of Glavin's virtues is that he understands the nature of Lacey's job and simply got on with the enforced re-shuffle eight days ago (after the Cup heroics Emley lost 2-1 against Leigh RMI in a Unibond League premier division match). He could probably do without making similar late changes this weekend.

"This is a great moment in our football lives and we appreciate that," Lacey said. "But you've got to concentrate on the job. I must admit I tend not to be so hot on some of the detail when it comes to minor stuff but I love all the facets of the job, the communication, the observation, the reports.

"Robberies are our bread and butter but it's still exciting. It's a brilliant job and in my first six months I think there were three big cases to work on, a pounds 2.5m robbery, which was the biggest ever in South Yorkshire, an execution in Conisbrough main street and another murder."

The Emley team consists entirely of part-time players though a few have had League experience. The striker Deiniol Graham not only played for Wales Under-21 but also made four appearances for Manchester United, scoring on his debut at Queen's Park Rangers. He never quite made the breakthrough, despite spells at four other clubs, and is now a labourer.

The goalkeeper, Chris Marples, was between the posts for four clubs, playing more than 300 league matches. He was also the Derbyshire cricket team's wicketkeeper for a couple of seasons in the mid-Eighties, although Bob Taylor was a hard act to follow. Marples is a gardener these days.

Emley also possess a postman, an insurance salesman, a marketing manager, a vehicle re-sprayer and a couple of fire- fighters, including their captain, Steve Nicholson, who scored two of the goals in the Lincoln victory. He has had to take almost all of his annual leave to be involved in the Cup run and if it goes on much further he too could struggle to make games.

"We'll be organised and ready and if we can get them back to Emley, well then who knows," Lacey said. He is aware of the big threat and Hartson presents a conundrum in more ways than one.

He has hardly stopped scoring, especially at Upton Park, this season which is bad enough. But he is also a key player in Lacey's Dream League team. What to do? All Lacey's training in every aspect of his life has taught him but one thing. He intends to get his man.