It took Conor Bradley just 742 days to go from signing his first scholarship contract with Liverpool FC to looping a superb ball down the wing to global superstar Mo Salah on his senior team debut.
t’s little wonder he summed up the experience of Tuesday evening’s friendly draw with Vfb Stuttgart as a “dream”.
It’s the same word his mum, Linda, used when the pair spoke to the Belfast Telegraph about his first-team ambitions ahead of his move across the Irish Sea little over two years ago.
Neither could have expected it would come this soon, and there’s little doubt that Jurgen Klopp’s decision to start Bradley in Tuesday evening’s 30-minute tie is significant.
“It’s wonderful for Conor to be selected in this esteemed setting in a team full of wonderful players,” assessed Reds’ legend Phil Thompson on co-commentary for the club’s in-house channel.
On a day when the travelling squad at the pre-season camp in Austria was split between two games, Trent Alexander Arnold captained what was the weaker of the two to a draw with Wacker Innsbruck.
Having already played 12 Premier League games, it would have been understandable had Wales international Neco Williams got the nod to fill his right-back spot in the stronger side for game two, alongside the likes of Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and James Milner.
But recent reports suggest Williams will be allowed to move on this summer for £10million, a significant contribution to that decision being Bradley’s stunning progress. Klopp’s decision on Tuesday would lend credence to the suggestion the newly-capped Northern Ireland international could enter the season as the Reds’ second-choice full-back.
And his performance won’t have done him any harm either.
Right from kick-off, the ball was worked through new signing Ibrahim Konate and out to Bradley. He could have been forgiven for playing it safe with his first action as a Liverpool senior player but then it isn’t taking the easy option that’s got him this far. Instead, he tried to take on his man and, although lost possession, the confidence was strikingly admirable.
Seconds later, he showed his quality when he flicked a cute ball round the corner to the highly-rated Harvey Elliott, utilised in central midfield for the first time.
It’s no secret that a Liverpool full-back must contribute as much in attack as in defence and, in truth, that suits Bradley down to the ground. Having played as a winger with Dungannon Swifts before his big move, he’s adept at going forward and showed his athleticism and willingness to involve himself, overlapping Salah or darting inside towards the box when the Egyptian star was dashing down the outside.
Bradley didn’t have many opportunities to influence the game in the final third but took the key one he was afforded, sliding a quick ball in to the feet of Naby Keita on the edge of the box, where the midfielder’s touch let him down.
And then there was that delicious ball over the top to Salah, played with the outside of the boot only after he had bulled to the ball and taken charge of the situation ahead of a certain James Milner. How’s that for confidence?
If he was being harsh on himself, Bradley could perhaps feel he could have got across quicker to stop Philipp Forster opening the scores but really, the questions should be directed more at Milner and Rhys Williams, who allowed the scorer to ghost through before the right-back could dash across to cover their error.
His defensive qualities had been evident early on when he got a crucial foot in to prevent a goal-scoring opportunity as Stuttgart tried to get behind with a neat one-two, and when he mopped up any potential breaks as the last man back for attacking corners.
There will, of course, be improvements to make, after all he’s only 18 and this was only game one. He was caught with balls over the top, once positioned too close to Konate, leaving the wing wide open but on other occasions left stranded inside when the midfield allowed an overload on Stuttgart’s left flank.
All in all, it will go down as a supremely encouraging start to what could well be a long Anfield career. Should he go on to take the final step and represent the Reds competitively, Bradley would become the first Northern Irishman to do so since Sammy Smyth in 1954.
Back then, he departed with the club relegated and in favour of a business opportunity at his father’s bookmakers in Belfast.
Times have changed and there’s nothing Conor Bradley, nor any other Liverpool fan back at home, would rather be doing than being right where he is, right now.
"Just incredibly proud,” he told Liverpoolfc.com after the game. “Obviously I’ve supported this club all my life, so to get my first-team debut… it’s only a friendly match but I’m just incredibly proud.”
Next up for Liverpool are friendlies against Klopp’s old club Mainz on Friday and Hertha Berlin next Thursday (July 29) before a return to Anfield for home games against Athletic Club and Osasuna. Those coming on back-to-back days on August 8/9, there could well be a first taste of the Anfield atmosphere for Bradley before the Premier League campaign kicks-off.
Whatever on-pitch experience he gets between now and then, he’s determined to make use of every minute of every day.
“You look after yourself and look after the way you eat, how much you sleep, hydration. You watch how (the senior players) do it and obviously learn from that,” he said.
“I just want to keep trying to better myself, trying to keep improving and trying to impress the manager the best way I can do. I just want to keep working hard and see what happens from there.”
It’s another incredible step forward for Conor Bradley and his young career. Who knows where the next 742 days will lead?