In his very first year involved, Wexford has won its way through to the final of the Leinster GAA football championship in 52 years. Along the way he’s consolidated his place with some vital stops, maintaining the consistency he showed through an unbeaten league campaign.
That culminated in a dramatic win over Fermanagh in the Division 3 decider in Parnell Park — that meant his first opportunity of actually playing in Croke Park had to be put on hold until Wexford got through to play Laois in the semi-final.
“It was nice to get a run there. Playing in Parnell Park wasn’t the same experience. You didn’t have the atmosphere that’s going to come on Sunday.’’
On 10 occasions in recent years Masterson went through the motions of deputising for John Cooper in championship games in Croke Park, which featured four consecutive semi-final appearances before this year. But there was never a time when he felt disillusioned. He knew he had youth on his side (he’s 25 now) and he believed that the team would eventually make the breakthrough.
“It was just hard to push John out of goal — similar to hurling,’’ he commented. “It would be hard to get Damien (Fitzhenry) out of goal no matter what you might do. I was biding my time. I knew that there was a lot of potential in the squad. I knew I had to stick around and stick through the thick and thin. Hopefully it’s paying off now!’’
It has paid off in the sense that he has played every minute of every game this year.
“Things are going flying. To be in the team and reach a Leinster final in your first year is a dream,’’ he added.
Acknowledging the huge influence of Jason Ryan, he remembers the way Wexford people initially reacted to the news of his appointment, bearing in mind that he wasn’t known in the county until he took over the training of the Clongeen club and led them to success in the county championship.
That was how Masterson himself first came in contact with Ryan — when Clongeen put his own club out of the championship.
“To be honest, once he got the job of Wexford manager, people were thinking that he ‘wasn’t a great choice’ because he was so young and they felt it was a gamble. But what a gamble!
“He has done a lot of coaching and a lot of work over in Australia and America and London, so obviously that’s paying off for him. And, it’s showing now with Wexford.
“I was around with Ger Halligan, Don Twomey and Pat Roe. They were all brilliant managers as well and the same with Paul Bealin. Jason is young and he’s only fresh out of playing, but he knows what we are all about and he knows what it takes. Some people might say he’s too young to be manager, but he has brought the team to a different level and brought so much confidence into the panel.’’
Confidence was in short supply, he suggested, when Wexford got to the Division One League final in 2005, shocking Tyrone only to flop against Armagh.
He was in his first year in the squad and remembers the experience of losing a major game in Croke Park.
“The difference was that when we got to that final, I honestly don’t think many people on the panel, or even in the county, believed that we could win. But it’s different this time around. There’s a great buzz around the county. People are actually believing that we can beat the Dubs and it’s washing off, because if there is negativity around — and people were saying you can’t beat the Dubs — it would wash off on the players. Thankfully it has been the other way round.’’
Masterson says that the confidence Ryan has shown in the players is reciprocated because of the success he had in persuading all the best available players to play. And there is a respect for him too, in the way he deals with the squad members on a one-to-one basis and the manner in which has developed the team dynamic. He explained: “In previous years, lads wouldn’t be happy to be taken off and they’d be thinking ‘he’s not as good as me.’ But this year lads can’t give out because the lad coming on to replace him is as good as him.
“Jason will call lads aside and he’ll talk to them for five or six minutes about the game they are after playing. He always lets you know where you stand.’’
Playing holders Dublin represents a major challenge, he agrees, but he insists that they will be well prepared, both mentally and physically. “Dublin had to start somewhere too, so that’s what we’re hoping to do,’’ he commented. “I firmly believe we will be there or thereabouts for the next few years. It’s not as if we came out of the blue. We were in the league final in 2005 and we have been in five Leinster semi-finals in a row. So it’s not as if we are a flash in the pan.
“It is a dream to be playing in the final, but I’m not looking forward to the occasion. I’m looking forward to going up there and winning. We’re not going up there just to put up a performance and make up the numbers.’’
And, based on what they have achieved so far this year, Masterson says that they have every reason to be optimistic — believing that their matter-of-fact reaction to beating Laois reflected the maturity in the squad. It was very different from their victory over Meath in the quarter-final — when, he agrees, there was a lot of jubilation because of the way they actually won the match
“To get to a Leinster final is great. But, once you are in it you might never get there again. We have to make the most of it.’’