Friday 21 June 2019

'I want to show the world what I can do' - Irish youngster Conor Masterson ready for life after Liverpool

Conor Masterson. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Conor Masterson. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Earlier this month, Conor Masterson packed his bags and moved out of his home in Liverpool's Rodney Street.

He said farewell to his long-term housemate Caoimhin Kelleher.

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"We lived together for four years," he smiles. "The city centre. Some great times. You can't get better than Caoimhin - chilled, relaxed, and a good player as well as being a good person."

They will still be seeing a lot of each other in the future. On Sunday, in Toulon, for starters.

The difference is that Kelleher will be returning from Madrid, having served as Jurgen Klopp's third-choice goalkeeper for the Champions League final, whereas Masterson has spent this week with the Ireland U-21 squad, concentrating on his next step.

His time at Liverpool is over. Masterson sensed what was coming when he was called in by the U-23 academy manager Alex Inglethorpe for a chat.

Deep down, he knew that the parting of ways was the best thing for his career.

He has watched his childhood pal Mark Travers and other young Irishmen grow in stature by playing first-team football while he has stood still.

But there was still a gutting finality about the club that signed him as a 13-year-old telling him that he was being released.

"Obviously it's tough," says Masterson, sitting in a chair at the Irish base in Johnstown House while being asked to go over his feelings again.

"To be honest, I was down... yeah, I would say I was down but I think it's the best thing going forward for me. To take on a new challenge. I want to go out and show the world what I can do."

There will be a lot of eyes tracking his progress, a by-product of the status that comes with making national news aged 13 when Liverpool signed him up on a pre-contract agreement worth in the region of €1m.

That was head-spinning attention for the Lucan United product.

A year ago, he was back in the headlines again when a defensive crisis resulted in his promotion to the bench for a Merseyside derby and a Champions League quarter-final with Manchester City.

"It was an unbelievable experience," he enthuses. So near, but yet so far.

He ended up going to the final in Kiev with injured first-team players Joel Matip, Joe Gomez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and that was the start of a luckless spell triggered by a knee issue which snookered his progress at a vital stage.

At a club of that size, there is always a production line of rising stars coming through ready to replace what's ahead of them.

That's before facing the task of trying to break into a team featuring arguably the world's best centre-half.

"You look at Virgil van Dijk and you see Matip now and Gomez, unbelievable players. Obviously you saw Van Dijk winning Player of the Year. You are trying to do that (break in), although he is way further into his career compared to me.

"So, you know, I don't think I had a real chance. That's why I wanted to go out and prove myself."

There was a brief chat with Klopp before his exit.

'Best of luck', was the gist of it, although Masterson suggests that the lengthier discussions were with the academy figures that had steered him through his seven years.

"I can't say anything bad about Liverpool," he says. "Just 'thank you' really."

He will be cheering them from France tomorrow, although there is a sense that he now has to detach himself from that period of his life.

The priority now is to look after number one and that's why the Toulon experience is so important - it can show prospective employers what he can offer.

He is confident that he has the attributes to slot into a Championship or high-end League One side and climb from there.

"I've had interest from that level, but I can't say who," he explains.

Adamant

Leading League of Ireland outfits have sounded him out, but he is adamant he will stay in England.

The caveat is that he needs a manager that wants a ball-playing centre-half.

Stephen Kenny will endorse that line of thinking, with Masterson enjoying life under the current U-21 boss and next senior manager.

"He doesn't want us to kick it long," he asserts. "He wants us to trust each other with our style of play, which is 4-3-3, and play it out from the back and show individually what we can do."

Kenny, for his part, is on board with the glass-half-full spin on Masterson's position.

"It's no disgrace that it's not worked out at Liverpool," he stresses. "When you're 20, you need to play. I think it could be the making of him."

The player is happy to hear that perspective.

"Stephen is right," he says. "I don't feel like there's any disgrace. I've enjoyed it but I've got to go and improve my career.

"It's been a great time but it's time for me to move on and start a new chapter."

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