Few players have taken the long, arduous route to this year’s Ulster Championship as that negotiated by Derry skipper Paddy Bradley.
Robbed of the chance of playing in last year’s provincial decider against Donegal by a cruel cruciate ligament injury, the 32-year-old Glenullin clubman has rigorously pursued a rigid solo rehabilitation and conditioning programme in a bid to maintain his crusade for what many people believe to be an overdue slice of Championship success.
And given that he has spent twelve years in the Derry side during which he has watched Tyrone and Armagh players take delivery of provincial gongs with what appeared to be monotonous regularity, it’s hardly surprising that the forthright Bradley has on occasions questioned the wisdom of clinging to his elusive sporting goal.
As he prepares to lead his side out against Donegal at MacCumhaill Park, Ballybofey tomorrow, his 50th championship appearance, the memories of torturous nights on the roads, gut-wrenching sessions in the weights room and seemingly endless jogging and sprinting are still all too vivid.
“I am going to be honest, I’m not bragging about it and I don’t expect any medals for it but I was out every day for the best part of a year — twice a day, in fact — in trying to build my knee up again,” he says.
“I had made up my mind that I would leave no stone unturned in my bid to get back to my best or as near to my best as I could be.
“Family life was put on hold. I was leaving the house at six in the morning to go to the gym for two hours and then every evening I was out again, even on evenings when my wife had something organised.
“But she knew that I was mad keen to get back again and she has been very supportive.”
It was the support of his wife, his parents — his father Liam is the Antrim manager — and Derry boss John Brennan that provided Bradley with the inspiration to maintain his recovery.
“I am 31 now and you sometimes have to question yourself when you get to this stage. We have our second child now and obviously I have family responsibilities. On the other hand, I am not going to get many more chances of winning an Ulster medal and I really need to be playing in every game I can. In fact, I have to treat every game as if it might be my last,” insists Bradley.
Having been axed from the panel by the then manager Damian Cassidy following a preliminary round defeat to Armagh in 2010, Bradley is understandably coy on broaching the circumstances surrounding their difference of opinion.
Instead, he is fiercely focussed on making this a memorable summer for all the right reasons, acknowledging that time is not on his side in his honours quest.
“You just don’t know how long you can keep up the commitment and intensity that are needed at inter-county level. I am the kind of person who does not do things by half. I am maybe pushing things but that’s the way I am. I will assess where I am at the end of the year in terms of the knee, general fitness, family life and other elements and see where I go from there,” states Bradley.
“There is always that bit of ambition in me to win an Ulster title. I definitely do see a big improvement in this Derry side and on how they are shaping up under John. Hopefully we can go one step further this year and I certainly want to be part of that.
“It will always haunt me that I have not had a provincial medal to show for my efforts to date.”
Even the shoal of individual accolades that have come Bradley’s way — an Allstar award, many man of the match trophies, Ulster GAA Writers’ merit awards, numerous top scorers’ prizes — fail to provide any measure of compensation for the lack of a major team championship success.
Far from wallowing in self-pity, Bradley pinpoints a litany of what he describes as “top-class long-serving Derry players” who never got to share in an Ulster title triumph before their careers ended.
“The names roll off the tongue — Sean Marty Lockhart, Paul McFlynn, Johnny McBride, Kevin McGuckin, Fergal Doherty, Enda Muldoon (pictured) and Kevin McCloy — the list goes on. How we did not win an Ulster title with those boys remains a mystery. That’s why I am very keen that we should come good this year and end the famine,” adds the Derry skipper.
For him, tonight’s game will mark the end of one agonising road and perhaps prove the first step on an altogether different route.