Belfast Telegraph

UK Website Of The Year

Home Sport GAA

Tyrone's glory years proved an inspiration for golden boy Bradley

Tyrone v Derry, McKenna Cup Final: Pairc Esler, Tonight, 7.00pm

By Declan Bogue

One Saturday night last October, Mark Bradley stood in the tunnel of Healy Park and just took it all in.

Killyclogher had just won only their second Tyrone Championship. He was the decisive factor. While he had only managed to score one point from play off his marker Michael McKernan in the drawn game a fortnight earlier, he hit six points from play in the first half of the replay, each a little bit more special than the last.

You just sense that the 23-year-old was born for the big occasion. He has form, lighting up the dark skies that hung over Parnell Park in April 2015 as he danced through heavy conditions to terrorise Tipperary in the Under-21 All-Ireland final.

In a few weeks, he will fetch up in Croke Park once again, a venue that has become an obsession for him.

In 2003, he watched from the safety of a corporate box as Tyrone won their first All-Ireland. A matter of a few weeks later, the domestic Championship had been ran off at breakneck speed and Killyclogher had their first title, parading the cup out to the farther regions of the parish, like his homeplace out in Mountfield.

He was nine-years-old. The game sunk its teeth into him.

From then on, Brian Bradley never had to convince his son Mark to join him on the Mountfield pitch for a kickabout, even allowing for the patches of sheep dung and obstinate livestock that would stray across their path.

Two years later, he was running onto the Croke Park pitch, hailing Tyrone's second All-Ireland crown, slipping a little twist of grass into his pocket to plant in his own garden.

And what of his debut for Tyrone?

"It was against Dublin in the league, Croke Park, when we drew with them (in March 2015)" he beamed.

"I was that excited, I had burned myself out even before I got on.

"I had no energy left. I remember looking up at the clock and thinking, 'this half must be nearly over' and it was only 10 minutes in. 'How am I going to get through this?' It was surreal. You never imagine you would get to play on it."

In the wake of Tyrone's first All-Ireland, there was much talk about how future generations would emerge and be inspired by that wave of players. Only Sean Cavanagh remains, and Bradley is the product of Tyrone's golden years.

In his first year at senior level, he found himself through on goal against Kerry in the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final.

Advancing from midfield, Cavanagh threw a shape and wriggled past Peter Crowley. He palmed off to Bradley, who put everything he had behind the shot, but Kingdom goalkeeper Brendan Kealy got a strong hand on the ball to make an incredible save.

"Up until a year later, I was still thinking, 'if only'," he revealed.

Already that year, he had won an All-Ireland title. Then he lost a county final against Trillick. In any team he played on, they were always in the thick of it.

Like last year's Dr McKenna Cup final against Derry, with the two teams clashing again in tonight's final in Newry. A total of 18 cards were produced and extra-time was an absolute thriller. For those present in Armagh that night, it was a contender for game of the year.

"A lot of people said that to me because it was so high-scoring and the intensity for that time of year and then to go to extra-time and the subs coming on, it was an amazing match," acknowledged Bradley.

But even given the games they have played and the games they have lost, he never experienced a dressing room like last August after their defeat in the All-Ireland quarter-final to Mayo.

It seemed pre-destined that they would beat a stuttering Mayo side, before facing Tipperary in the semi-final. Be in no doubt, it would have been the handiest route to an All-Ireland final Tyrone would have faced.

"We just knew after that," lamented Bradley.

"I have never been in a changing room like it. It was really frustrating and there was a lot of disappointment. We didn't play anywhere near our best and obviously there was the chance of progressing in the All-Ireland series, which is something we need to work on."

Even playing in Croke Park takes time to get used to as you run on pure adrenaline.

"It's intense, especially when you are up against it. Such as the Mayo game, they are just keeping the ball and you are trying to run after it. They might have three me, you might have two," he said.

"You are just drained. But they are good days, games when you want to be playing."

The shorthand theory is that Tyrone have everything in place, bar the sort of forwards that somehow are ordained with the 'marquee' title. This prompts Bradley to launch a stout defence of the attacking talent in the squad, including others that rival him for a starting place, such as Ronan O'Neill and Lee Brennan.

One man who won't be in the mix is Connor McAliskey, who fell victim to a freak rupture of a cruciate ligament in their first McKenna Cup game against Cavan.

"It was devastating, the whole team was devastated for him," said Bradley.

"'Skeet' is a really good guy and it's tough on him and the team because he was really starting to take off even in the early stages of the season."

His highest point is one that he wants to recreate. He casts his mind back to the 2016 Ulster final when Tyrone finally got the better of Donegal after four consecutive Championship defeats.

"The game was so, so tough. Donegal were just keeping the ball and we couldn't get it off them, and then the wonder scores from Sean, Petey, McGeary popped up with another one too," he recalled.

"It was amazing. I was just exhausted after it because it was a roasting day. You were sitting on the bench just frying, trying to get water into you, but it was an amazing feeling."

And after it?

Tyrone's players, management and backroom members made their way to the Westenra Hotel in Monaghan town, as is their custom of recent times.

They had a three-course meal and, full as a finch and drained by the heat, the emotion, the crowds, the achievement, Mark Bradley did what any sensible young man would do in similar circumstances.

"I just hit the bed early," he said.

Like the boy next door.

Belfast Telegraph

How to Complain

If you have a complaint about the editorial content of the Belfast Telegraph or Sunday Life then contact the Editor here. If you are not satisfied with the response provided then you can contact the Independent Press Standards Organisation here

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph