Former Derry GAA star Paddy Bradley knows what it’s like to lose an All-Ireland semi-final. Twice. In his own inimitable style, he tells you suffering defeat one step away from the biggest match of your life is ‘like getting all dressed up for the prom with no date’.
Bradley, as enjoyable to chat to as he was to watch play, has faith that the modern day Derry boys will have someone on their arm by the end of this weekend.
Approaching Saturday’s last four clash at Croke Park against Galway, 41-year-old Bradley believes there hasn’t been excitement around the county like this since he was a kid in 1993 when Derry won the only senior All-Ireland crown in their history.
For a man who openly admits his “serious regrets” about not claiming the Sam Maguire and is honest enough to insist the Oak Leaf county has underachieved over the years, it is stirring to hear his enthusiasm about Rory Gallagher’s team and the joy the players and their recent performances have brought him and many others.
They surged to Ulster Championship glory, blitzed Clare in the All-Ireland quarters and are relishing a shot at Galway knowing victory would set up a final showdown with Dublin or Kerry on July 24.
The buzz is building in Derry.
“It is unreal,” says All Star Bradley, a dynamic, daring force for his county in the 2000s.
“I played in two All-Ireland semi-finals in 2001 when we should have beaten Galway and in 2004 against Kerry when we were well beaten. Looking back to 2001 and 2004 there wasn’t anywhere near the hype that there is now.
“A lot of that has been fostered in the schools. At Easter all the kids were invited to an open house training session for the team at Owenbeg and that got the kids behind the side. They have also been doing ‘Red and White’ days in schools which have helped.
“The whole way through my playing career one criticism people had about Derry was that people didn’t back their team in numbers but they really are this time and it has been brilliant. There are Derry flags all over and we are going to take a massive crowd to Croke Park. I’ve never seen the Derry support as healthy.”
Bradley, a winner of two National Football League titles with Derry, grew up idolising the 1993 All-Ireland champions. He is thrilled youngsters now have new heroes to cheer.
The Glenullin man says: “We feel as a county we have underachieved. The boys that won an All-Ireland in 1993 have gone down in history. One of them is my own club man Dermot McNicholl who is revered. They all are… men like Tony Scullion, Anthony Tohill, Brian McGilligan, Johnny McGurk, Henry Downey, they are heroes. Those are the men people of my generation aspired to be.
“I broke into the panel aged 18 in 1999 and played with some of the All-Ireland winning greats. I was in awe of Anthony Tohill, an unbelievable player. It was amazing to share the pitch and changing room with him.
“For young ones in the county they are looking for new heroes. They aren’t old enough to remember 1993 so it is great to have a team that we can all really get behind and hopefully push on to win an All-Ireland. Like so many people I get great pride and joy watching these boys. They have captured the imagination and don’t just carry the dreams of themselves, they carry the dreams of the entire county.”
Bradley has coached, played with and against the players in Gallagher’s panel and speaks in glowing terms about their attitude, drive and determination and why he feels they can go further than his teams did.
“When I was playing we had the talent to go all the way and win it. It’s a regret. A serious regret. It’s something I think about nearly every day,” says Paddy, brother to fellow ex-Derry star and Irish League favourite Eoin.
“A semi-final is the hardest game to lose like we did. It’s like getting all dressed up for the prom with no date. You are one step away from the biggest game of your life.
“I think with their momentum and confidence this Derry side will do enough to win their semi-final. They are a very grounded bunch and I have seen how hard they work and the level of preparation that has gone in. They have determination, drive and a great attitude which will be important.
“What will also be key in the semi-final is patience, composure and taking your opportunities. So much hinges now on turnovers and Derry are very good at retention of the ball.”
Hailing the influence of Fermanagh native Gallagher, Bradley adds: “Rory deserves great credit. He has come in from outside and united the county. Back in the old days there was always something in the background, people walking in and out of panels, boys not happy with team selections, internal strife, complaints about the county board and club rivalries and Rory seems to have got rid of all that and everyone is going in the right direction.
“Rory has a small close knit panel who have a strong bond. You hear his interviews about ‘committing to each other’ and that mentality has served them well so far and he has fostered that. In the past people might have said some Derry lads weren’t fully committed. These boys are 100% committed to the team and the jersey.
“One thing that hasn’t been mentioned a lot is the recruitment of Peter Hughes who is a Tyrone man. He is in charge of athletic development and strength and conditioning, and he has done good work in the background and you can see that because Derry look to be the fittest team in Ireland right now.”
While appreciating the team ethic, Bradley is better placed than most to appreciate what brilliant individuals bring to the party.
He namechecks captain Chrissy McKaigue, Brendan Rogers, Gareth McKinless, Conor Glass, who he feels is a Player of the Year candidate, and Shane McGuigan “one of the most exciting players to watch in GAA right now”.
Bradley, who will be on a family holiday when the All-Ireland final is played, adds: “I knew over the last two or the three years the team was making progress and I felt we could topple Tyrone but did I think we could put three big performances together to win the Ulster Championship? Probably not but momentum and confidence has been building from each game.
“I think now it will take a really, really good team to beat Derry. Galway are a very good side and they will be Derry’s toughest test to date but the closer I get to the game I feel Derry are going to do it and then we can begin to dream of 1993 all over again.”