WHEN James Masters received the call from new Cork manager Ephie Fitzgerald to take up a role as a selector with the Cork senior ladies in 2016, he was hesitant.
“I had finished with Nemo at the time because of my hips and Ephie just asked me would I come out for a session or two and I wasn’t too sure, but I met the girls and it went from being a selector to coaching pretty quick.”
Nearly three years on, Masters is preparing his team to do battle in Croke Park next Sunday, on the biggest day of the ladies football calendar.
Just speaking with him, you can sense the excitement generating off him with the impending battle against the Dubs, as for the buzz he gets out of coaching? It’s palpable.
“I really enjoy it. I didn’t know if I would enjoy coaching. I put a lot of time into it, you see some coaches who might do a lot of the same drills over and over again.
"Myself and Kevin (Tattan) try and always think of different drills and keep it game specific.”
Masters admits that he wouldn’t have watched much ladies football up until he became involved, but his eyes were soon opened to the standard of the ladies game.
“I would have watched Cork ladies but I wouldn’t have watched a whole pile of ladies games in general until I got involved.
"But now I am at training thinking this is mesmerising football. I find it very enjoyable.
“They are frightening in training. Now don’t get me wrong, there might be times the standard might drop off, but if that happens you have the likes of Ciara (O’Sullivan) coming in and making sure that standard is kept.
A self-professed messer, it is clear that allowing the girls to express themselves both on and off the field is important for Masters.
With so many younger players trying to find their feet at senior level, you get the sense that he thinks about them not just as players, but also as people.
“We are trying to create an environment where everyone can just be themselves.
“We ask them to be honest and give 100%.
"If they do something wrong, we have standards but we don’t do drinking bans or anything like that, but we just ask that if they do something wrong they are honest with us.”
Having played with Nemo Rangers for 15 years and represented Cork for the bones of a decade, Master’s utilises his experience in any way he can.
Orla Finn has availed of countless extra kicking sessions, while Aine ‘Terry’ O’Sullivan has brought her game to another level this summer through the guidance of Masters.
“Terry is playing great football. She’s been brilliant.
"She has transformed herself since the start of the year, I met her and asked her to do certain things and she has done them to be fair to her.”
2016 was a whirlwind start to Masters coaching career, the Rebels managed to defend their title and secure their 11th All-Ireland in 12 years.
Masters admits that there may have been an added pressure in 2016 to deliver an All-Ireland title Leeside, considering the phenomenal successes of that particular group, but now he rests easily in the knowledge he is giving absolutely everything to the Cork cause, and this is the beginning of another exciting era for Cork ladies football.
“For me as a coach, I don’t feel any pressure to win it this year, even though the girls have been so successful in the past.
"From me as a coach, Kevin and all of us, I think we have done as much as we possibly can, we have put 100% heart and soul into this and then what will be will be.
"This team isn’t going anywhere for a long time, but I don’t feel the pressure to be perfectly honest about it.”
2017 presented a new challenge for the Cork management team, players who had soldiered for Cork since 2005 were no longer available for selection, which made way for a new generation of Cork footballers.
A generation that Masters believes can bring Cork to the pinnacle not only this year but beyond 2017.
“We really are developing a great panel.
"We have so much potential for the future. Hannah (Looney) has come in and been a massive addition to us and Libby (Coppinger) is playing great football too.
“Eimear Meaney has been massive for us too, she is very steady. And we have the likes of Chloe Collins, who I would have absolutely no fear throwing into the game next weekend.
“Emma Spillane has an all-star and she is getting better by the game now.
"She is a leader on the pitch, Melissa (Duggan) is probably the best player in the country.
"I would hate to be a forward lining up and she walks over to me.
"The likes of Saoirse Noonan coming off the bench has been phenomenal for us”
But the embedding of so many new players naturally took time and 2017 was poor by Cork’s standards; a sixth consecutive Division 1 National League title was followed by a lacklustre championship campaign.
But in the space of 12 months, Cork are back on the GAA’s biggest stage, a phenomenal feat that Masters, Cork manager Ephie Fitzgerald and the rest of the backroom staff should receive massive plaudits for.
According to Masters, one man, in particular, has helped bring these Cork youngsters to the next level, strength and conditioning coach, Kevin Tattan.
“Kevin has really been the difference this year as far as I am concerned.
"He came in last year doing the strength and conditioning with the girls but this year he has been helping out massively with the football and he has been a massive help to me.
“He’s tough and he has standards that he expects the girls to meet.
"It’s great to know if I can’t make a session that I am 100% confident that Kevin and the lads will take care of it.”
Through Cork’s era of domination, there was one team that felt the Rebel wrath more than any other; Dublin.
For a change, the sky blues find themselves with the favourites tag for Sunday and Masters thinks it is totally deserved.
“Dublin are fierce fit and powerful and they will be hard to stop.
"As far as I am concerned they are 100% favourites, they are All-Ireland champions and are probably twice as good as when we played them in 2016, they are probably faster now and better footballers.
"Mick Bohan has done a great job in that sense. But at the same time we are going well ourselves.
“We are going to try and play our own style of football and be as competitive as we can, our girls play a great brand of football.
"I hope they play to their potential because they are phenomenal footballers.”
This current Cork panel has 67 All-Ireland medals in their locker, but you get the sense that if they overcome the odds and beat Dublin on Sunday, this will be the sweetest one yet and the beginning of a new era for Cork ladies football.