Mark Bradley still shooting for the stars with Tyrone
The autumn brought rave reviews for Mark Bradley as he helped Killyclogher win the Tyrone SFC. Now, as county football comes out of hibernation, Brendan Crossan finds him ready to strike for glory with Tyrone...
IN the autumnal gloom, some players glow more than others. In the fading afternoon light nobody glowed brighter than Mark Bradley.
It almost became mandatory for the diminutive corner-forward to pull a rabbit out of a hat in each of Killyclogher’s Championship games that saw them capture their first Tyrone senior title since 2003.
Bradley delivered a virtuoso display in Killyclogher’s emphatic final replay win over Coalisland and scored a wonder goal in his side’s first-ever Ulster Club Championship win over Antrim champions Cargin.
September and October were blissful months for the 22-year-old.
Standing 5ft 7in, Bradley tortured most corner-backs on the club circuit in 2016.
But the inter-county stage is an entirely different level.
Mickey Harte has consistently used him in a more withdrawn role.
Maybe it’s the only way to keep small forwards relevant in the modern game.
After being one of the leading players of Tyrone’s all-conquering U21 team in 2015, Bradley has been a great success at senior level.
“Obviously I’d always be around corner-forward for my club,” he says.
“That would have been my out-and-out position. But then when it comes to the county you just mightn’t get the same room that you’d get out in the half-forward line.
“The last two years I’ve been at centre half-forward and I had a bit of luck there and it worked out well for me.”
So it is harder to make your way at county level as a smaller player? For Bradley, there are two ways of looking at it.
“I suppose [it is] but the game has got so much quicker…I don’t know about the small man thing. Obviously you’re at a disadvantage – I’m not going to win a high ball over some of the full-backs but you still have the pace. Pace is massive. If you have pace to burn it can help you massively.”
Game intelligence is the reason why Bradley will always flourish at senior level.
He covers serious acreage in games and has that uncoachable ability to get himself into goal-scoring positions.
Leaning back in his chair in the lobby area of the Glenavon Hotel ahead of tonight’s Dr McKenna Cup final, Bradley adds: “First and foremost, I am a forward. If the ball is anywhere near the forward line you want to be able to get onto it.
“Since day one that is what I have been learning to do, that is what my father [Brian] taught me.
“At county level, you can’t just be walking about, especially for a forward.
“You can’t be switched off nowadays. You look at Colm Cooper and Philly McMahon in the 2015 All-Ireland final.
“You see the likes of McMahon and he is supposed to be defending and he can go up the field and kick a point.
“It is always evolving, you just can’t switch off. It is the same now with the club; every half-forward is doing that.”
Due to the extended season with his club, Bradley gained only fleeting game-time in this month’s Dr McKenna Cup. He was a second half substitute in Ulster University’s group game win over Cavan, scoring three points.
He returned to the Tyrone fold for their semi-final win over Fermanagh last Sunday and got the last 25 minutes.
He is named to start in Newry tonight as the Red Hands aim to win their sixth McKenna Cup title in a row.
“I’m just happy to be playing, happy to be there… Our in-house matches are like the first round of the Championship of Ulster. I’ve no idea [where I’ll play] but I don’t get hung up on it.”
With Connor ‘Skeet’ McAliskey ruled out for the season after suffering a cruciate injury, Bradley feels Tyrone still have the firepower to be a force in 2017.
“It was devastating for ‘Skeet’, the whole team was devastated for him,” Bradley says.
“‘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.
“Of course he's going to be a massive loss to us but it gives someone else a chance to step in now and hopefully do as good a job [as McAliskey]
“But I wouldn’t say we haven’t got the strike force; you can maybe understand why some people might say that.
“[But] If you look now we have a good six inside forwards… the likes of Darren [McCurry] is flying. You’ve Ronie [O’Neill], Lee [Brennan] – they’re all top quality forwards; it’s just getting a bit of momentum and confidence and it can make a massive difference.”
Bradley knows exactly what young Lee Brennan can bring to the table after playing alongside the Trillick ace at U21 level.
“Lee’s still only 21,” he says. “His physicality has come on massively. He’s another option. He never got many chances last year but he’s bided his time – he just has to take his chance when it comes.”
Bradley was just nine-years-old when Tyrone won their maiden All-Ireland in 2003.
Two years later he managed to run onto the Croke Park pitch to celebrate his county’s second Sam Maguire. He also pinched a bit of grass and planted it in his back garden.
As fortune would have it, he made his senior debut in a League game against Dublin at Croke Park.
“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 I thought, 'Jeez, this half must be near over' and it was only 10 minutes in. 'How am I going to get through this?'
“You never imagine that you would play on it.”
Bradley hopes to pocket a McKenna Cup winner’s medal in Newry this evening.
After that, it will be just 11 more sleeps before he’s back at Croke Park, playing the All-Ireland champions under the lights, living the dream.