Tuesday 21 November 2017

Wexford would have to win All-Ireland titles for football to overtake hurling, insists 'keeper Masterson

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

During the week, Leinster Council chief executive Michael Delaney was asked about the expected attendance at tomorrow's provincial football final.

For Delaney, an experienced hand at estimating attendances, anything over 50,000 would be well above expectation. The more likely figure was between 45,000 and 50,000, he felt.

The failing economy was an obvious factor, but then Delaney threw in another consideration which also had some relevance.

Wexford, he suggested, had one of the smallest football support bases in the province. That's just the way it is. His experience told him not to be too ambitious.

There were just under 80,000 at the last meeting between the counties in a Leinster final three years ago, but circumstances were different then. There was more money in people's pockets and for the discerning Wexford GAA fan, it was an afternoon to dip their toes and test the waters. Too many, however, felt a chill and are reluctant to go back.

Anthony Masterson's opinion on the divide in his native county sits easily with Delaney's caution.

The Wexford goalkeeper, who has kept six clean sheets in his last six championship games, appreciates that conversion is a long, hard road.

For Masterson, Wexford is hurling country and even if the small ball game is struggling, it will remain the dominant code.

"Football, I tell you, even if we won a Leinster title, it still wouldn't overtake hurling. I love hurling, I'm a GAA fan and I love it all and so do my parents," he said. "But Wexford have to go on and win a couple of All-Ireland football titles and maybe a couple of Leinster football titles for it to overtake hurling.

"But I don't think I'll see it in my playing career that Wexford will ever become a football county.

"It's just the way it is. When I was growing up I was going to hurling matches."

Wexford boss Jason Ryan believes progress has been slow, but there has been progress nonetheless.

When he was first appointed in late 2007, trying to coax players to commit to their county football team was laborious and frustrating for the young Waterford man. But he has detected a change that only days like tomorrow can bring about.

"The only battle I feel we are winning is when I pick up the phone and ask guys to meet me or to come to training sessions for the first time with the county, I don't get as many no's as I used to in 2008," he said.

"And now we have guys from traditional hurling clubs. Guys who would have played more soccer that are now playing football with Wexford. We have guys that are dual players. We have guys who are on the U-21 hurling team in our panel who are very talented footballers. So, a few years ago that just wouldn't have happened."

There is no obvious geographical divide in the county, according to U-21 hurling manager Tony Dempsey, who has managed every Wexford team in both codes over the course of a long career.

"It's not like Cork with east and west, hurling and football, or Offaly and Galway, where there is an obvious divide," he said. "Most counties have that. And it's a problem in one sense. Because, apart from a few clubs that concentrate solely on one or the other game, like Rathnure or Oulart in hurling, there are predominantly dual clubs in Wexford.

"I wouldn't entirely agree with Anthony, certainly not from a playing point of view. Maybe eight or 10 years ago Wexford would have been considered a hurling county, but definitely the two games are on a par now and, if anything, football is moving ahead."

Dempsey points to the choices made by dual players in recent years that reflect football's growing strength: "Maybe the people have to be convinced, but a lot of the players don't. Ciaran Lyng would feel he has a better chance of winning a Leinster medal in football.

"I have two players on the U-21 squad who are on the senior football squad, Liam Og McGovern and Michael Regan. Their priority would be the senior football squad over the senior hurling squad."

Earlier in the year, Dempsey's U-21s, who play Dublin next week in the Leinster final, had a problem with dual players being released for training, an issue which the former Wexford hurler and All-Ireland medal winner, Gary Laffan, highlighted publicly.

Five years ago that wouldn't have been an issue. The hurlers would have got their way.

Football in Wexford has made great strides over the last decade. But the people have yet to be convinced.

The battle for hearts and minds goes on.

Irish Independent

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