Peil4All initiative set to become Wexford success story
By Cian O’Connell
On a dark November afternoon in 2017, Anthony Masterson’s imagination was captured by simple, but effective words.
Not long after being tasked with the role of Games Development Administrator for Wexford football, Masterson took unexpected advice on a winter Sunday.
Corofin’s credentials had received a most stern examination by Castlebar Mitchels in a gripping AIB Connacht Club decider, but 220 miles away in Wexford Masterson watched and wondered.
“I was listening to the Corofin manager Kevin O'Brien a couple of years ago,” Masterson recalls. “I had just started my job, I was a few months into it. He was asked a question about where was the magic for Corofin?
“In fairness the answer he gave, he didn't give an answer about the players, he just said it was all in the primary schools. They were reaping what they sowed. They started in the primary schools maybe 10 or 15 years ago. They are reaping the benefits now.
“It is something that stuck with me, I put up the quote on Twitter or something saying that there was no magic potion basically. It is about hard work and getting into the primary schools.
“That is what drove me on to say if my job is going to take me anywhere I'm going to get involved with the primary schools, to make sure the primary schools are looked after.
Corofin manager Kevin o Brien when asked what’s the secret to their success “ it all begins in our primary schools, the coaches,parents and schools all buy into it” . Simple but most effective way 👍— Anthony Masterson (@antomasterson1) November 26, 2017
“We are targeting them as much as we can. It is actually where the idea of doing the idea about doing the ‘Lunchtime Leagues’ come from. We can thank Kevin O'Brien for that.”
In the coming years perhaps the Wexford football renaissance will be traced back to what actually happened after Corofin overcame Castlebar.
Every journey starts somewhere. Masterson’s ideas and ambition would soon be put into practice.
Suddenly Masterson was stitching little plans together. How could young players be targeted to immerse themselves in Gaelic Football? A ‘Lunchtime Leagues’ initiative has proven to be a particularly successful project. “At the end of the day my job is to promote football,” Masterson explains.
“Obviously Wexford is a very strong hurling county, I find in primary schools kids love hurling and football. They love playing all sports. So we have a hugely successful hurling 365 programme. I suppose the pressure came on me and a few of us to see whether we could work an initiative for football.
“I have started up ‘Lunchtime Leagues’, that is one of the initiatives I've started up. We've got schools taking part in ‘Lunchtime Leagues’. It is ran by the sixth class themselves. It is run for third, fourth, fifth, and sixth, it is opened up for boys and girls to take part in it.”
Wexford’s coaching staff have been especially helpful with Masterson acknowledging the work carried out by Lloyd Colfer, who has returned to the county following an impressive stint with London GAA.
“Lloyd Colfer, who is a GPO, he used to be a Games Administrator in London. He has come home to work and has been brilliant.
“We threw up a few different ideas and promotions. It is our job then to go around to sell it to the schools, to get the schools up and running and taking part in it.
“This year has been the first real big year of it. Between ‘Lunchtime Leagues’, before and after school coaching we've had more than 50 schools. It has been very successful.”
So practically how do schools roll out the ‘Lunchtime Leagues’? “We pay a visit to the schools, we got a bit of funding from the County Board - we give the school a set of bibs, a nice little trophy, and a couple of footballs; just to get them up and running,” Masterson states.
“I call around to the schools to get them set up with the lunchtime leagues, we even encourage the kids to do up Fantasy League tables and picture boards in art class. The teachers find it very helpful, it gets all the boys and girls from third to sixth class involved.
“It is just a little initiative our teacher ran when I was in primary school for hurling, football, soccer, and everything. We did mini World Cups, it is something that seems to have died off.
“It is just a little initiative and idea that I had to try to get kids out and about playing. It is self sufficient. That is the main part of it in that it didn't need teachers or Games Promotion Officers or anything to run it every day.
“The kids are able to run it themselves. That was our view, to give the kids a bit of leadership and ownership.”
Masterson has found that the kids are well and truly able to do it by themselves. It is a basic, but critical development.
A progressive County Board has established a solid coaching structure in Wexford with emphasis placed on long term development.
“In fairness to Derek (Kent), Micheal (Martin), Gearoid (Devitt), and Ray (Harris) they have really targeted the youth,” Masterson admits. “It is a long drawn out process. You might get quicker gains targeting the older age groups, but it is something we all adhere to doing and said we would go after.
“We are trying to target the underage and primary schools, to foster a love for the game and try to bring them through. You can easily see from the hurling side that the passion and love for the game is there.
“That comes from the hurlers doing so well. It is famous to see the pictures from half-time with the amount of kids out on the field. It all comes from the little initiatives in the primary schools too. So from my point of view we want to see that back to a certain scale in football.
“It probably unrealistic to just think that we can get back to Division One where I would have played at the start of my career. We need to try to become an established Division Two and Division Three team first before we can aspire to getting up there.”
Masterson’s career commenced when Wexford were relevant on the national stage. That is why the summer of 2008 matters so much: it illustrated what could be achieved.
Jason Ryan’s methods dovetailed nicely with a group of players, who bought into the approach. There was a drive, a desire to make Wexford better.
Excuses can always be provided. Hurling is the dominant game in the county, but Masterson remains adamant that football can prosper too.
It is only 12 years ago since Ryan gathered the Wexford players in a huddle after Tyrone beat them at the penultimate stage in Croke Park. “I remember Jason Ryan calling us in after the 2008 All Ireland Semi-Final, we were still on the pitch as people were going around picking up all of the dirt,” Masterson recalls.
“He said a lot of things, but I vividly remember one thing. There was 25,000 to 30,000 Wexford people were in Croke Park supporting football. They had been to maybe three matches that year.
“We played in front of 82,000 in the 2008 Leinster Final which was unheard of. I know granted we played Dublin, but there definitely was 25,000 Wexford people there. We are brilliant people like that.
“Football mightn't be getting the support at the moment, but the reality is we are in Division Four. Wexford didn't get 8,000 or 10,000 when we were competing at a lower level in Wexford Park for hurling.
“So if you want to get supporters there you obviously need to move up the grades, to try to compete at a higher level. Supporters want to see you playing against the best teams. I saw the full range.
“When I started off going into Division One, lucky enough I was good enough to get into the panel when I was still Under 21. I finished up playing in Division Three or Four. There was no difference because I loved playing for Wexford, but obviously you want to be playing at the higher divisions.”
The respect for the jersey still exists and that is why Masterson feels it is important that a standard is met. Masterson isn’t talking about winning All Irelands or trophies frequently, but he believes that the county can make progress.
How important is it that Wexford people were exposed to seeing the footballers perform at a serious level? “People have short memories, they saw Wexford competing, it is only 10 or 12 years ago since we were competing at a really high level,” Masterson replies.
“It isn't 30, 40 or 50 years ago, the generation of people are still there. We are just moving on to a stage where you have nobody left on the panel, who played in that era. So I think the Wexford people do believe.
“The good sign is Wexford people aren't happy with playing in Division Four. They believe and feel that the talent is there to be in a higher division. I think that is a positive. It would be worse if nobody cared or nobody had a desire to go forward, to climb up the ladder.
“We've had a bad spell over the last four or five years that led to relegation. The hurlers went on a serious upward curve.
“So it is natural for any young fella at 19 or 20 if they are playing hurling or football, the natural thing is he would want to play hurling for Wexford. I always say only 30 fellas can tog out for a Wexford hurling team on a given day.”
What steps can be taken to make Wexford deliver on a consistent basis again? “We need to strive to develop as many good dual players as we can as possible to let the boys choose then when they get older,” Masterson adds.
“If the football is going really well that means they will want to play football for Wexford. We do see it. I see it in the Wexford minor football team this year. I'm involved with all of the Wexford development teams with my job, there is a real desire for young lads to play for Wexford.
“They are very proud to play for Wexford. The young lads don't really mind at this age that Wexford are in Division Four. For us, our job is to make sure we look after them really well, to develop them really well, to try to nurture them to become better players.”
Three years spent managing the Wexford Ladies team since his retirement as a player brought plenty of good days.
Masterson’s belief in Wexford’s potential hasn’t wavered. Paul Galvin’s instalation as Wexford senior manager has attracted interest and Masterson is hopeful about the future.
Becoming a durable inter-county team operating in the highest divisions is the ultimate objective, but Masterson is a realist too.
“Of course it is the aim, but you have to have small steps first,” Masterson responds. “With the League we don't know what is going to happen, but for Wexford to keep moving forward I think it is everyone's target and goal.
“That is why Wexford brought in Paul Galvin, to try to get up to Division Three. I wouldn't see ourselves being a million miles away from the likes of a Tipperary or Clare. Look at Clare, who are competing really strongly in Division Two, a strong dual county, predominantly probably hurling.
“You have plenty of players out there. We have a really unique county. We have 50 clubs and about 47 of our clubs are dual.
“We don't have a pocket of an area that is strong for hurling or strong for football. It is just spread out evenly around the whole county.
“At underage all our boys and girls play football, hurling, and camogie. That is our aim, to try to give them as much games opportunities to play the sports as we can.
“From my point of view I want to ensure that football is up there on a level playing field with hurling. In fairness to the County Board and the Coaching Office it is something we are very good at. There are no complaints on that front.”
The next decade promises to be interesting - the Wexford GAA story is usually always worth monitoring.