Thursday 19 April 2018

Liverpool bench role for Ireland's Conor Masterson next step in steady rise

Liverpool's Conor Masterson. Photo : Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Liverpool's Conor Masterson. Photo : Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

For Conor Masterson, there was no such thing as an ordinary teenage life.

His progression to the fringes of a big Champions League night has been his mission since Liverpool snapped him up as a 13-year-old.

Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea were keen on the Lucan United defender too, a player who towered over his peers as an early-developing six-footer.

The Liverpool supporter was always keen on Anfield, however, and a deal worth €1m brought headline attention.

With that came pressure too, as Masterson's progression through the ranks at Liverpool has been traced with interest from afar.

He turns 20 later this year, which tends to be a point where youngsters at big clubs reach a crossroads. Robbie Brady and Conor Clifford were subject to the same attention when they made lucrative switches to Manchester United and Chelsea in their teens.

They found it harder as they moved up the ranks and, while Brady has made it for club and country, he ended up making just one senior appearance for United before spreading his wings.

Masterson is approaching the stage where he requires first-team experience that shows he is good enough to last the course. The defensive crisis that has afflicted Jurgen Klopp might open the door.

He was talked up from his early days at Lucan where his father, Ciarán, was a coach. Masterson - who actually grew up across the Kildare border in Celbridge - quickly graduated to representative teams and he starred for the Dublin and District Schoolboys League at the Kennedy Cup in 2012.

Liverpool splashed out to tie him down, yet he couldn't actually move over until 2014.

Since then, he has steadily climbed up the ranks from U-16 to U-18 and then the U-23 side midway through last season. He has also been involved with his childhood hero Steven Gerrard's U-19 team that reached the quarter-finals of this term's UEFA Youth League.

With Ireland, he has also climbed through the age g roups. Last year, he played with Declan Rice in Tom Mohan's U-19 side and that link could be significant.

He is versatile too and Liverpool did play him at midfield in one emergency. But he has always carried himself like a player that would end up in defence.

Last summer Masterson sat down with Lucan's local radio station, Liffey Sound, to discuss his development.

"I used to love playing left wing when I was younger," he explained. "But I'm a good talker and leader now, I've brought that to my game. From the back, I can direct everyone."

While Masterson is a big man, he is comfortable in possession. He told Liffey Sound that Liverpool wanted him to work on other things.

"It's just basically my defending. Limit mistakes, head the ball, kick the ball. Don't let the forward score, basically," he said.

Klopp clearly rates Masterson. Two years ago, he was given a taste of first team life by getting a spot on the bench for an FA Cup tie with Exeter. Yet a more significant breakthrough came a year later when he was brought on a training trip to La Manga.

Crisis

The German said that Masterson and English attacker Yan Dhanda were there as they were 'the next boys' coming through. It was a trip that gave the Irish youth a real insight into how the manager worked.

It featured a table quiz where he found himself on the same team as the boss. "He was talking to me and asking questions and wanting to get to know me which was nice," he explained.

Speaking after last night's win over City at Anfield, Klopp said of the youngster.

"Conor is a good boy, he is very confident," he said. "I'm not sure if that's typical for Ireland - when I told him he was in the squad he said 'I'm ready man'."

Masterson said of the historic night: "It was an unbelievable experience, just to be out there in the warm-up in front of the fans was surreal really. I like to come across confident. That's the way I am, being myself and it's the key to success really."

Rice's starring show in Turkey came on the left of a three. With Shane Duffy set to be at the heart of any Irish defence going forward, there is potential there.

That is premature talk for now, though. Three years ago, Daniel Cleary was in a European squad for Liverpool under Rodgers but he is now back at Dundalk rebuilding his reputation following a dispiriting end to his time at Anfield.

The hope was that he would become the first Irishman to play for Liverpool since Robbie Keane's brief stint in 2008.

Masterson is so close to ending that wait.

Irish Independent

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