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'I got messages saying, 'I brought my daughters because the ladies footballers were there, not the hurlers''

Wexford manager Anthony Masterson on that brilliant Leinster treble homecoming, the rise of ladies football and his transition to the game.

THE SCENES IN Wexford Park on the first Monday evening in July said it all. 

Three winning teams and three Leinster titles were presented to the county with the successful senior and minor hurlers and ladies footballers having won their respective provincial championship crowns the day before.

wex A snapshot of the Wexord Leinster treble homecoming. Source: Wexford GAA Twitter.

While two trophies were lifted in Croke Park on the Sunday, the massive victory at Carlow’s Netwatch Cullen Park may have flown slightly under the radar on Slaneyside. 

But it was made certain that Anthony Masterson’s side were also front and centre of the celebrations after landing the Leinster intermediate title for the first time since 2007.

A truly special win, with the cherry put on top at a sun-kissed Wexford Park alongside their male counterparts.

“We had a great weekend all around,” Masterson told The42 at the 2019 TG4 All-Ireland championship launch last week.

“It was a great weekend for Wexford GAA in general. The girls were invited to the homecoming, I think nearly 10,000 people turned up in Wexford Park.

The girls were just flabbergasted, number one to be invited which was special. We’ll call a spade a spade, they were piggybacking on the hurlers’ success. But I think we need to do that more, ladies football need to do it more: get as many double-headers as we can, get into the main county grounds, get the supporters in early for the second match and get them supporting the girls.

“Definitely piggybacked on the hurlers’ success, but we took it with open arms. It was just amazing.”

It was an evening that will live long in the memory of the players, and of Masterson himself. The crowds, the noise, the claps and the smiles; the sheer appreciation from those that turned out in their thousands made the moment so special.

“I got 40/50 text messages and emails in the hours afterwards,” the former Wexford goalkeeper smiles.

I was even getting some during it when I was up in the stands… just people saying, ‘I brought my two daughters down not because the hurlers were there, but because the ladies footballers were there’ and, ‘My daughter is delighted because she got a picture with so and so and got her autograph.’

“That’s huge for ladies football, and for any ladies’ sport. The World Cup has helped; the fact that more games are on TV, the fact that we’re getting into Wexford Park, getting into Nowlan Park, Croke Park is obviously going to aid it going forward.

“I think there just needs to be a huge drive on it because we’re getting to that stage now where we need to keep on striving to improve.”

Anthony Masterson Wexford ladies football manager Anthony Masterson. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Everything is on the up, he agrees. Ladies football has come on leaps and bounds over the past few years. The profile has risen ten-fold, while matters both on and off the pitch have come on something serious. 

The standard has increased significantly, meaning it’s a much more attractive game to watch. There’s been more media coverage and sponsorship, resulting in a higher interest with attendances improving year on year.

As with anything, there’s still work to be done and improvements to be made, but even looking at this year’s championship, the amount of games set to be broadcast live on TG4 and on Facebook with big venues and county grounds playing host to them is a huge step.

It just boosts the profile of it,” Masterson nods, before going on to tell a story emphasising how improvements have been made but there definitely is much more to do.

“Last week, one of my best friends rang me at eight o’clock on Sunday night [after the Leinster finals] to see what I was doing, I was literally on the bus coming home. I said, ‘I’m just on the way home from Carlow’.

“He forgot about it. He didn’t even know if we had won or lost, he was in Croke Park at the hurling and got sidetracked.

“But on the flip side, I had so many text messages, so many well-wishers. That didn’t happen three years ago. We got to a Leinster final three years ago, it wasn’t live on Facebook; the media, our local paper wasn’t driving it as much.

The internet now is just full of promotion for the ladies game, which is brilliant. The media outlets are starting to put interviews into the paper, the girls are on billboards around the place. Lidl have started to put the girls’ pictures up in the shops.

“The recognition is there and it’s absolutely brilliant. The girls deserve this recognition. But we just need to keep driving and driving and driving it and make sure it keeps getting better.”

He adds: “The one thing I will say is it’s great to have 50,000 people in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day but what about before that?

The reality of it is some of the girls’ family, some of my family, some of their best friends, some of their team-mates would have went to Croke Park last Sunday to support the men instead of going to Carlow.

“Until we start changing that attitude… I keep saying to all the girls that they need to start supporting each other. Their own team-mates need to start supporting each other, putting the girls first before we start thinking about anything else. Until that happens, we’re going to struggle to keep catching up with the men.”

masterson Source: Anthony Masterson/Twitter.

The Castletown club man mentioned the World Cup and the importance of having games on television. That visibility and exposure is massive, and of course, success brings more and more of that. 

Just look at that Monday night at Wexford Park, sure. And it’s there he refers back to straight away.

“Wexford Park was 90% young lads trying to get their hurls signed, but there was 10% girls there. 10% of 10,000 people is 1,000 people, like.

1,000 girls looking at these girls on a pedestal. They don’t know whether it’s a senior championship, an intermediate championship or a junior, they just see a Wexford ladies football team up on a pedestal with all the men’s teams.

“That’s the way I really, really believe it should be. These girls train as hard as the boys, they do their gym work, they give up their social lives, they give up holidays, rejig work to try and get there. People don’t understand that as well.

It’s important that we get the profile out there for these girls to see it. There has been a massive, massive boost over the past five years. Hopefully it’s only going to get better going forward.

Masterson first took the reins ahead of the 2017 season, shortly after bringing the curtain down on his own inter-county career.

Now Gaelic football development officer in the county, the experienced goalkeeper had been working with his club’s ladies side in the years prior to taking the leap into inter-county management.

Coming from the men’s game was tough at first, he concedes, especially into the Wexford set-up.

“There was a bit of adjusting to do,” he admits, sharing the struggles and challenges.

“In the men’s game if you have 32 on the panel, there’s going to be 32 at training every night. The girls, there’s a lot of younger people playing; students, girls still in school, they’re working weekends and a lot of them depend on that money to put themselves through college. It probably took me a while to take that all on board.

Anthony Masterson celebrates his side's second goal Masterson between the posts for Wexford in 2019. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

I just expected if you had a panel of 30 that you’d have 30 there at training. That wasn’t always a reality. You have to adjust to it and move with the times. 

“Emotionally, obviously… well to be giving the girls respect, I don’t think they want to be treated any differently. They don’t want to be not cursed at, they don’t wanna not hear bad language.”

“We’re lucky enough to train in the Centre of Excellence, Davy [Fitzgerald, Wexford hurling manager] could be there,” he grins. “Obviously Davy’s boisterous and you can hear him from all over the place. The girls want that as well.

“The girls want someone that comes in and takes it serious to drive them on to the next level. They don’t want someone to come in and treat them as second class citizens. 

We’re there in the Centre of Excellence, we’re there for a reason because we’re the main ladies team in Wexford and we deserve to be there. I came in and just tried to up the standards, I demanded more of the girls.

“They definitely have bought into it, I think we’re starting to see the rewards for it. I do think we’re putting ourselves up there with the best teams in intermediate.”

He’s all chat about the Leinster final win over Meath, giving every detail but he’s conscious not to dwell too much on the past. It’s interesting, however, what Masterson says about the rising standards evident there.

“It was a really, really good game,” he notes. “I really enjoyed the tactical battle. I think tactically the game has evolved and moved on. There’s a high caliber of management in place of all the teams.

To be honest with you, when I first got the job a few of my friends were saying to me, ‘Jesus, what are you doing taking over the women’s team?’

“But I think people are seeing now that it’s a serious sport and the girls are applying themselves really well and professionally to the game. It’s only going to improve.”

That it is. 

With the All-Ireland series up and running now and a crucial 3-10 to 0-16 winning start made against Clare in Doonbeg on Sunday, it’s onward and upwards now for Masterson and his charges against Laois next weekend and further afield.

wex2 Source: Wexford Ladies/Twitter.

He’s quick to point out how close recent encounters with their Group 3 opponents have been, and what’s waiting down the line in a potential All-Ireland quarter-final should they get there.

But it’s all about the journey, and building on what they’ve done already. 

“It will stand to us. These girls just want to be playing big games, ones that you’re going into week on week thinking, ‘We could win this by a point, we could lose this by a point,’ that’s how you improve and that’s how you become better.

“We found that Division 2 was a massive help to us, we really had to battle and work so hard to gain every score. In Division 3 we were a little far developed and ahead of other teams, you don’t really learn much from a 10 or 15-point win so in Division 2 it’s a massive help.

For us to win an All-Ireland or get to an All-Ireland final is going to be a mammoth task.

“Our main target was to win a Leinster title,” he concludes. “It had been 12 years since the girls won it. They lost to Kildare four years ago, Meath three years ago, Laois by a point last year so we have been knocking on the door.

It wasn’t a flash in the pan, we didn’t come out of nowhere. We’re looking forward to the All-Ireland series now, it’s brilliant that it’s open for everyone really.

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Emma Duffy

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