‘People ask me, were you bitter about 2010? Not a hope’

A Cork-Kerry Munster final fills James Masters’ horizon this afternoon... but not necessarily the one you are thinking of.

In his role as Cork ladies coach, Masters is learning first-hand the key lessons of management and how to aid the development and nurturing of players, areas that may have hastened the end of his inter-county career in 2009 NOW that he is a coach, James Masters is keenly vigilant to ensure his players avoid the mistakes he and some of his managers made during his playing days, but not some of the privileges he took for granted.

No player has won more Cork senior football championships, with all but one of his nine county medals sealed in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. His three senior Munster championships with Cork were all won in the bowl down by the Marina.

Now that he thinks of it, many of the best days and performances of his career — the 2005 and 2006 county finals, when he was man-of-the-match, the 2006 Munster final replay, when he blitzed Kerry for 1-6 — were in the Páirc, a place he fondly describes as “a footballer’s dream”.

Yet, for the footballers he helped coach to an All-Ireland title a little over 18 months ago, playing in that theatre remains just that: A dream, not a reality.

A few hours before Ronan McCarthy’s side face Éamonn Fitzmaurice’s, the women’s Munster final — another Kerry-Cork affair — takes place. Masters and his players had hopes it would be played in the new Páirc, building on the quantum increase in double bills the women’s game shared with its male counterpart elsewhere around the country this spring, only to learn that the curtain-raiser slot was reserved for the minor clash of Clare-Kerry and no third game would be permitted on the same surface.

“They were then looking at Mallow,” Masters explains in his soft, lilting voice. “Now, we played in Mallow during the league and it’s a fabulous facility, but the reality is it’s out of the way for a lot of people. We wanted a city venue where you could build up a bit of atmosphere before the men’s game.

“My thinking was if we could get Páirc Uí Rinn, it would make it a lot easier for people to pop over and support both, but then we were told that it was unavailable, because the stewards for the men’s game would be all parking up there. You would have hoped that maybe they could have got a couple of [shuttle] buses for them…” 

The eventual venue is reasonably convenient: Cork Institute of Technology will host the game at 2pm, allowing punters to fit in both games and a bite to eat. With no disrespect to the college, though, Masters is hoping future big games will be staged in the county’s biggest ground. While it can grow tiresome, the all-too-familiar story of women’s sport agitating for more suitable and equitable platforms, Masters is mindful they have to keep banging on the door. It’s the only way it’ll open.

“Sure, if we weren’t to say anything now, then we’d be saying it next year and they mightn’t act on it for another few years.

“The issue I have is that we’ve players on this current Cork team and previous Cork teams that have never played in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. You’ve the likes of Ciara O’Sullivan, one of the best footballers in the country, who has played 10 years for Cork, won, I don’t know, how many All Irelands (eight), and has yet to play in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

“And I’d say 95% of the Cork GAA public still haven’t seen her play in the flesh, whereas they’d be inclined to go in early [to the Páirc] to see some of the women’s game if it was the curtain-raiser.” 

“I’m not trying to take away from the minor game — I played in a Munster minor final myself (in 2000) before the senior game and it was a great occasion — but I would hope that in the future we (the women’s game) get the curtain-raiser slot more often. I suppose it’s complicated, with the women’s game not yet under the one GAA umbrella and you have separate Munster councils and all that, but you would hope in the future there’s more [integration].” 

For Masters, respect is something these players have earned and something he had to earn from them. Beyond helping out with the Nemo ladies for a bit, he had no coaching experience when Ephie Fitzgerald asked him to come in as a selector at the start of 2016. The only way the novice felt he could cut it was to be a servant as much as a mentor. 

Get the best pitches available for them. Be available outside training for them, meeting up individually to help with their free-taking or any other aspect of their game they wanted to work on, a service Orla Finn avails of at least once a week.

When they’re doing some runs in training, he’ll often fall in; while he’s basically “crocked” from injury, it tells the players that not only will he do anything that they ask, but he wouldn’t ask them to do anything he wouldn’t do himself.

There was a time, though, when he was much younger, his commitment wasn’t so apparent.

For much of his playing career, Masters was something of an enigma, though whether that was more down to himself or how he was managed is even more perplexing. In that 2000 Munster minor final, he was substituted after just 20 minutes, immediately upon kicking his second point, then was man of the match the next day against Derry and victoriously captained the team in the final against Mayo.

Even in Nemo he wasn’t trusted. At the same time as he was the standout forward with the county U21s, he couldn’t even make his club’s starting 15 in any of the three county finals and three All-Ireland finals it contested during those years. There was no disputing the sweetness of his left foot; his heart and love for the club prompted greater scepticism.

“I started in the first round in 2000 with William Morgan (a fellow minor), flying it. Then I went away to a concert in Dublin — Witness [a festival] or something like that — and was dropped for the year.

“Then, the next year, I went on holidays for a week, missed a hurling match and was dropped for another year. Nowadays, with your club you can go away for two or three months. You couldn’t back then. Not with Nemo. Not with Billy [Morgan]. I didn’t tell him about it (the holiday), because I was too afraid of him at the time. I let someone else know.

“I suppose the lesson of it all was that I needed to respect Nemo Rangers. I needed to commit. It’s similar enough to Luke Connolly. The difference between Luke now and years previous is that he’s 100% committed to football; he’s into his fitness, practising frees, whilst before you’d see him going up to training, doing a few flicks. He was always talented, but he didn’t have that application.” 

By the time Masters was out of U21, the penny had dropped with both player and club. He committed to them and they — in the form of new manager Ephie Fitzgerald — backed him, even letting him assume freetaking duties from Colin Corkery. At the start of Morgan’s second season in his second stint over Cork, Masters was called up to the county panel, though he soon had other suitors.

Hurling has been the other — more secret — love of his life, and an affair he still continues with the club juniors, in goal. Back in the autumn of 2004, he won an All-Ireland with the county intermediate hurlers and followed it up by scoring 3-11 for the club in an intermediate county semi-final. 

Ger Cunningham, a selector to John Allen, met and invited him onto the senior panel, which was bidding to retain the Liam MacCarthy Cup. Masters said he’d think about it, that he needed to run it past someone first.

“I said it to Billy. He said: ‘They have fucking’ Tom Kenny and they won’t let us have him, so they’re not getting fucking James Masters!’ And I said: ‘Okay.’” 

Both Morgan and Masters would repay and reciprocate each other’s loyalty. In 2006, Masters was second only to Conor Mortimer in the championship scoring charts, while in 2007 he was second to no-one, helping Cork to an All-Ireland final appearance in the process.

Kerry goalkeeper Diarmuid Murphy takes the ball from James Masters, at Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney, Co. Kerry. Picture: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

“Billy was great for me. I remember we went to La Manga in 2006 ahead of the first round of the championship against Limerick. I had an ingrown toenail out there and couldn’t train for most of the camp. I had to go to a chiropodist when we got back. The Tuesday before the game, Billy rang: ‘We’re picking the team tonight. How are you feeling?’ I was like: ‘I’m feeling good, Billy.’ He said: ‘Perfect. You’re starting, so.’ I know for a fact the other selectors didn’t want me to start, but I did (scoring all but one of Cork’s nine points in a dour four-point win).

“I see it now as a coach: Certain players are confidence players. If they’re having a great game and we’re well ahead and one of the selectors says, ‘sure, we’ll take her off now and give someone else a run’, I’ll be, ‘no, not a hope’. Because there’s a chance that even if you tell them a hundred times that they were brilliant, they won’t believe you. You’ll have damaged their confidence that bit.” 

Under Conor Counihan, Masters’ confidence would be damaged significantly. After being hampered in that 2007 All-Ireland final with an injury that had ruled him out of the semi-final, he bounced back, helping Nemo go all the way to the All-Ireland club final, in which he’d kick three points from play in a one-point loss to St Vincent’s. When he returned to the Cork setup, though, he wasn’t feeling the love.

“I know it sounds awful, but I never felt that I was wanted by Conor. I was coming off the club final, playing great football, but obviously Daniel [Goulding] was there and had been taking the frees. Our first game back, I asked: ‘What’s the story with frees?’ ‘Oh, Daniel’s taking them.’ I just never got the same vibe off Conor that I got off Ephie or Billy.” 

Masters would make one last effort to change Counihan’s perception of him, “training my absolute ass off” the winter after the 2009 All-Ireland final defeat to Kerry, boxing in the gym in Rylane that Noel O’Leary had set up for them.

Masters had never been in better shape. Three games into the following spring’s league, though, he had remained rooted to the bench in one of them and only thrown on in injury time in the other two.

“I’d say I was the only forward sub still on the bench, when they had a little look over and Counihan said: ‘Yeah, just bring him on.’ “I knew, then, it was over for me.” The following week, Masters, aged only 27, informed Counihan he was pulling the plug.

The following September, Cork won the All-Ireland.

Masters wasn’t even in Croke Park. Instead he watched it in his sister’s house with Kevin Murphy, the sub goalkeeper who had also been dropped off the panel. It was still too raw, but never descended to anger.

“People ask me: ‘Were you bitter about 2010?’ Not a hope. Now, don’t get me wrong, you’d be going: ‘Jesus, I could have been there,’ but Alan Quirke, Graham Canty, Nicholas Murphy, Derek Kavanagh, those fellas gave their whole lives to Cork GAA. There would have to be something wrong with me if I was bitter about them winning an All Ireland, just because I walked away from the panel.” 

Looking back on it all now, he can see that there was a pair of them in it. Counihan may have had a negative impression of him, but Masters did too little too late to alter it. By the same token, another manager, especially one that didn’t have Goulding or Colm O’Neill to fall back on, would have made a Masters work for him, would have sold him on the benefits of S&C which at the time was still in its infancy in Gaelic Games. He didn’t grasp that being stronger and quicker would help him win more ball, kick more points in the closing stages.

Between player and coach, either of them could have created a positive, self-fulfilling prophesy. Instead, neither broke the spiral of negativity.

“My work ethic wasn’t there as much as it should have been. I have no regrets when it comes to Nemo football, I gave 15 years of my life to it, but with Cork, 100% I have regrets.

“Joe Hayes (the former Clare goalkeeper and a former Garda trainee alongside Masters) said it to someone I know recently that in Templemore I’d come into the gym for three or four minutes, laugh and joke, lift a weight and then head off. Now, I’m telling the girls: ‘Girls, you actually need to do this (S&C) to get better.’ “To be fair to Conor, he’s obviously a great manager, he won an All-Ireland, but he didn’t manage me right; he wasn’t right for me.” So, the lesson and legacy for James Masters, the coach? How would he manage James or Jamie Masters the player?

“I’d probably be a lot more hands-on to get a lot more out of the person: ‘Okay, you have all this talent, but imagine how much better you could be if you were to do this and lose this…?’” 

That’s the thrill for him now as a coach: Working with players on how they can get even better. Such as young Chloe Collins from Dromtariffe. Last year, she couldn’t even make the Cork minors, but now, here she is, starting corner-back in today’s Munster senior final.

Then there’s the likes of Orla Finn. She’s already won six All-Irelands and yet she’s constantly asking — plaguing — Masters for ways she can improve and so he throws out a suggestion and challenge to her: You’ve a great left foot, but you know when you’re going down the left wing and then you turn in onto your right? Why not keep going and kick it on the run over the bar off your left? You’re well able to and it’ll keep your marker guessing… It’s not everyone who can offer such nuanced coaching. Masters certainly wasn’t offered it, bar a couple of exceptions.

As influential as Morgan has been, he never did any one-to-one coaching on the training ground with Masters. His tendency and strength was to work with the group. Counihan’s feedback barely extended beyond the team sheet.

Colin Corkery — “the best freetaker ever”, in Masters’ estimation — offered some great advice in that particular art: The importance of routine and how he liked to place the ball, the grooves facing forward; how the more you stood further from the ball while taking a free on the right, the less chance you had of slicing it.

The other occasion was after a draw against Castlehaven in the championship. One of Fitzgerald’s selectors, Colm Murphy, asked Masters if he could stay on after training for 10 minutes.

“Colm said: ‘You know there when you win the ball, you turn fierce slow, in a big loop.’ And what he did was get me to come out, win the ball and turn sharp.

“The replay was probably the best game I ever played. They didn’t know what to do with me, because I was taking them on. It was a small thing, but it made a huge difference. So that’s what I try to bring to the Cork ladies.”

When Fitzgerald took over as manager, he had the sense to not make any unnecessary changes from what had worked so well under Eamonn Ryan. Training was still at the same places at the same time. The girls still wanted the song ‘Don’t Give Up Till It’s Over’ played on the bus going to championship games, so he agreed to their request.

Nothing remains the same, though, not even the song: The last day against Tipperary, it wasn’t played on the bus. Things have moved on, players have moved on. In Fitzgerald’s first season, Cork would end up All-Ireland champions again for the 11th time in 12 years and, in his second, they’d win their 11th league in 13 years, but there’s a new hierarchy now. 

As Masters will openly concede: “We’re all chasing Dublin now.” Cork, though, are determined to catch and overtake. Even today, they have something to prove, having failed to reach last year’s provincial final. Masters is particularly encouraged and excited by the attacking options he and Fitzgerald can call on and that’s without Eimear Scally, who will be back next month. “There’s a great bunch there, 25 girls who all get on fierce well and work really hard.” 

Whatever song they’ll have on the bus today, they won’t give up ’til it’s over.


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