QPR’s Conor Masterson speaks to Damian Dolan about enjoying London life, how leaving Liverpool made him stronger and why the future is bright for the Republic of Ireland
When Conor Masterson started Queens Park Rangers’ FA Cup Third Round tie with Swansea on Sunday, it ended the Kildare native’s long wait for that elusive first senior professional appearance.
In fact, it’s been a bit too long of a wait, the Republic of Ireland Under 21 international will tell you.
But good things come to those who wait and he’ll also tell you what a “proud day” last Sunday at Loftus Road was, not just for him but for his family.
And a winning one at that, as the R’s thrashed fellow Championship side Swansea 5-1.
“We’ve waited a bit [too] long – a few years – for it to come,” Masterson told the Irish World.
He came agonisingly close to making his senior debut for previous club Liverpool – the club he joined for £900,000 on his 16th birthday from Dublin’s Lucan United.
He was named on the bench three times by Jurgen Klopp during his five years at the Reds, but it was R’s boss Mark Warburton who finally gave him the nod.
Up until then, the prolonging of Masterson’s first appearance for the club he joined last summer from Liverpool was becoming something of a story in itself.
With Warburton, who nearly took Brentford to the Premier league a few years back, seeing Masterson as one for the future and reluctant to just throw the talented ball playing centre-back in to the Championship fray, the Irishman has had to bide his time with the club’s under 23s.
Until last Sunday that it.
Not that Masterson has been at odds with his manager’s thinking – he’s “100 per cent” on the same page and just focused on “training every day and getting better”.
“The gaffa’s right – the position I play there’s a lot of responsibility for a young player. I totally get what he’s saying and he’s been brilliant with me,” he said.
“Obviously you want to play every game but the gaffa feels that this is the best way for me and I respect that.”
Indeed, it was Warburton’s track record of developing young players that persuaded Masterson that QPR was the right move for him.
He added: “The way he works with young players, he’s really good, and the club wants to produce a future…..and I want to be a part of that. Hopefully I am one for the future.”
One for QPR’s future he may very well be, but as far as Ireland’s Under 21s are concerned he’s already one for the here and now.
His lack of first-team appearances for QPR, or Liverpool for that matter, certainly didn’t do him any harm in Stephen Kenny’s eyes from the outset.
“I impressed him; he said he was really happy with me and he just thought ‘this guy can play’ and he’s picked me ever since,” said Masterson.
“He’s honest and straight to the point, which is good for players. You want to know what he’s thinking.”
He added: “His style of play suits me. He wants you to get the ball down, build from the back and really play. Not the old traditional Irish way of just getting the ball and lumping it.”
Masterson has started six of Ireland’s seven Under 21 European Championship qualifiers and was a goalscorer in the 3-1 victory in Sweden.
All the same, first senior appearance out of the way, Masterson, is now understandably eager to kick on and really “show the fans what I can do”.
Loving life in London and at QPR, he certainly sees himself as part of the club’s future. Just six points off the Championship play-off places, a top-flight return for the west Londoners, for the first time since they were relegated in 2015, isn’t beyond them.
Masterson believes the 6-1 hammering of Cardiff City on New Year’s Day could be the impetus they need.
“The talent we have and the attitude, that could be a turning point. Hopefully it will change our season and we can carry it on,” he said.
Whether Masterson is part of that season reminds to be seen.
A loan spell for the remainder of the 2019/20 campaign isn’t out of the question in order to give him regular first-team football, and that’s something the player himself is more than open to. To “knock off the loose edges” as Warburton calls it.
“We’ve spoken about a loan…but if I do well in the next few weeks….you just don’t know,” he said.
“I’m really happy and I’m satisfied with the way things are going. I’ve loved every minute at QPR and London is a really good place to live. There’s a lot to do – everything is here.”
Masterson is candid when speaking about his time at Liverpool. He admits that being released by the club he’d supported as a boy at the end of last season had left him “gutted”.
Having captained the Reds at Under 18, being part of Steven Gerrard’s Under 19 side which reached a UEFA Youth League quarter-final and progressed through to the club’s Under 23 team, being let go was something he “didn’t expect”.
“I thought I was going to get a new deal or go on loan,” he reflects.
In April 2018, he was named on the bench for the 1st leg of Liverpool’s Champions League quarter-final with Man City, and for the Premier League fixture away to Everton.
Although he didn’t get on, Masterson’s career at Anfield seemed to be moving in the right direction.
So much so that Klopp had tipped him the wink that he would make his senior debut in the final league game of that season, away to Brighton, as the Reds boss utilised his squad just two weeks ahead of the Champions League final with Real Madrid.
🎥 | Conor Masterson’s header for #IRLU21🇮🇪
What a header and look at what it means to the squad 💪
— FAIreland ⚽️🇮🇪 (@FAIreland) September 10, 2019
But a knee injury prematurely ended Masterson’s season, forcing him to miss the club’s end of season tour of America.
“It set me back; it took my momentum away,” he says.
“I did my knee in training, but I carried on because I had a chance of been involved against Brighton. But I shouldn’t have carried on.”
An MRI scan revealed damage to the meniscus in his knee and ruled him out for ten weeks. He returned the following September but was then ruled out for another month, again with a knee injury.
“When you miss your chance, someone else gets their chance. That’s football; it’s tough and it can be harsh, but you just have to get on with it,” he said.
While his admits he was left feeling “down” when the club told him of its decision, Masterson has emerged “stronger” for the experience.
His five years at Liverpool have left an indelible impression on a young man still far nearer the start of his playing career, than the end.
“Every day doing the right things, that’s what gets you to the top. Eating right, training right, recovering right – a strong mentality every day. That’s the difference between the top players,” he said.
“There’s loads of talented players, but if you don’t train right and go into games fully focused, you’re not going to succeed like they [Liverpool] are, because of the core group and mentality they have, and the manager is really good.
“They [Liverpool] were always going to kick on.”
Liverpool also provided him with the “maddest and most unbelievable night” of his life – the Reds’ 3-0 Champions League 1st leg quarter-final win over Man City, with Masterson named among the substitutes that evening. Just trying to get into Anfield was an experience.
“It was crazy; I remember we were coming in on the bus and there was thousands and thousands of fans singing Allez, Allez, Allez,” he recalls with a warm smile.
“The players at Liverpool are like gods – I couldn’t believe what was going on.
“Then we got into the stadium and I saw my family in the stand when I was warming up. It was a magical night – it’s what dreams are made of.
“But it’s the past now. It was a great experience and hopefully I can get a few more of them.”
The present is QPR and Ireland’s Under 21s, who are on the verge of reaching the finals of a major tournament for the first time.
It’s a special group of players, and Masterson knows it.
“The future of Irish football looks good – there’s a lot of talent in that team,” he said.
“We’ve Aaron Connolly, Troy Parrott, Michael Obafemi, Adam Idah, and hopefully myself. There’s a lot.”
They top their group by three points from Italy, who have two games in hand. They face a double-header with Iceland and Luxembourg in March, before travelling to Italy in October for what will be “the big one”.
2020 could be a very big year for Masterson, and it’s already got off to a pretty good start.