Saturday 16 February 2019

'Million dollar kid' Conor Masterson leads Irish Anfield revival as he limbers up for festive debut

 

Red star: Conor Masterson looks set to earn some first-team experience with Liverpool facing five games in the next 17 days. Photo: Getty Images
Red star: Conor Masterson looks set to earn some first-team experience with Liverpool facing five games in the next 17 days. Photo: Getty Images

John Fallon

Seldom does a 13-year-old footballer feature on the back page of a newspaper so there had to be something special about Conor Masterson when he was projected onto the front page.

It was July 2012 and the prominence of coverage the Celbridge native commanded wasn't due to him agreeing to join Liverpool. That's a frequent occurrence for Irish youngsters.

Instead, it was the price tag - seven figures, eclipsing what Liverpool agreed in a deal to secure another Irish fledgling, Alex O'Hanlon, a year earlier.

Arsenal had set the bar in the market by splashing out on Stephen Bradley in 2000, surpassing it three years later for Anthony Stokes. Chelsea's offer for Conor Clifford in 2006 took it up another notch.

The English Premier League circuit, awash with television money, activated a price war in the academy recruitment sector level and Masterson's deal remains the most lucrative for an Irish cadet.

Being known as the million-dollar kid brings its own pressures, especially as the defender had another two seasons to run playing for his local club Lucan United before moving full-time to England.

Begrudgery is rife in Irish football and many scoffed at the prospect of Liverpool yielding value from their outlay.

But Jürgen Klopp can attest to the club getting bang for their buck.

Facing into a period of five games over the 17 days, starting today against Newcastle United, the Liverpool manager has hurtled Masterson into contention to feature at some point amid the blitz.

It may be the FA Cup third-round trip to Wolves on Sunday week but his debut appears to be have veered into when, rather than if, territory.

Graduate

That bow, were it to come, would make Masterson the first Irish-born graduate in 14 years to taste first-team action for the Reds.

Since Richie Partridge played in that League Cup tie at Tottenham Hotspur, converting a penalty in the shoot-out, Shane O'Connor, Mikey Collins, Daniel Cleary, O'Hanlon and Caoimhin Kelleher (below) have taken the same path as Masterson by enlisting into the Liverpool academy at Kirkby.

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Caoimhin Kelleher in action for Liverpool against Manchester City last week. Photo: Getty Images

Long gone is the era of 1980s and early '90s when Irish players colonised the Reds' successful first-team but here's the possibility of a green hue returning just as the club's title famine seems as if it just might end.

As is typically the case with elevations in a crowded squad, Masterson is making the most of circumstantial benefits. Klopp's pinch point for personnel is in defence, where Joel Matip and Joe Gomez are unavailable for several weeks, leaving Klopp with just two fit centre-halves in Virgil van Dijk and Dejan Lovren.

Full-back Trent Alexander-Arnold, a home-produced gem, is also ruled out through injury.

Throw in the fact that Nathaniel Phillips, Masterson's defensive partner for the club's U-23 team and a year older at 21, is sidelined and the planets are aligning for the Irishman.

Klopp doesn't seem to be clinging on for the transfer window to open next week, claiming that he's content to work with what he's got to counteract any further challenges caused by injuries or suspensions.

Dropping Brazilian midfielder Fabinho back has been floated by the manager, as has re-jigging to a three-man defensive unit, yet Masterson's promotion is central to the various options.

It helps that Klopp has experience of looking into the whites of his tyro's eyes when thrusting a task upon him.

"How about a place on the substitute's bench for the Champions League quarter-final?" he asked in April for the visit of Manchester City. "I'm ready, man," came the retort with a moment's hesitation.

Masterson doesn't get fazed. Captain of Ireland at the U-17 Euro finals in 2015, he also took the armband for Liverpool's underage sides.

Although money and status have proven the downfall of many a great Irish hope in the UK, the adulation hasn't gone to Masterson's head, either in the dressing-room or back home, where he visits his former club Lucan whenever possible.

His casual demeanour and 6ft 1in frame have inevitably led to comparisons with John O'Shea. Like the Waterford native, nurtured under his late father Jim, Masterson had a paternal influence in manager Ciaran at Lucan.

Both backed themselves by picking the toughest route of them all to the top, where competition up the ladder is not confined to local, UK or European peers, but also global imports.

Back in 1999, O'Shea was 18 when Alex Ferguson handed him a debut in a team defending three trophies. Now Masterson could be part of a side also chasing a treble. That certainly takes something special.

Irish Independent

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