Former Derry GAA star Eoin Bradley relishing another Irish Cup final
“It was no surprise when Eoin Bradley, our only maverick, left the squad a few years ago. He was bored stiff. We used to go along and laugh out loud at his genius.
But as the game became more and more formulaic and being a county player became an all-consuming life, Eoin left to play soccer in the top division of the Irish League.
They only trained twice a week and he was guaranteed a match every week and a four month off-season. I was critical of him at the time, but I was wrong. He is a man who needs to express himself. Who plays for the joy of it.” – Joe Brolly
EOIN Bradley has the kettle on and two chicken toasties ready to serve. From his front door you can see miles of sprawling countryside.
A plasterer by trade, there doesn’t appear to have been a lot of work done on this tranquil Friday afternoon in Kilrea.
Horseracing is on the television and there are a couple of dumbbells and a foam roller on the living room floor.
Emma, his partner, is at work and the kids – Cathaoir (11) and Cara (6) – are at school.
‘Skinner’ is home alone for the afternoon.
When we meet it is eight days out from his second Irish Cup final appearance in two seasons.
Not bad for a GAA player who switched codes only a few years earlier.
Twelve months ago, he starred in Glenavon’s surprise cup final win over Linfield.
This year, he carries the hopes of a young Coleraine side on his broad shoulders.
Gary Hamilton, the Glenavon manager, maintains that had ‘Skinner’ concentrated on soccer in his youth rather than Gaelic football he would have made it across the water.
And Hamilton knows a thing or two about what’s required to make the professional grade.
It’s hard to believe Bradley is 33. He could easily pass for 25.
Leaning back in his high stool in the kitchen, Bradley says: “Gary told me many a time that I could've made it across the water, but you need a lot of luck too.
“A lot of kids go over and a lot of them come back. But I would've loved the opportunity, loved it.
“But at the same time I won a championship with Glenullin [in 2007] and I played for Derry for 10 years and won a National League title with them.
“I come from a GAA family… But if somebody said to me that I could do it all over again I’d definitely go down the soccer route.”
In the off-season, Bradley played a bit of soccer with junior club Kilrea United. Nothing too serious.
Ballymoney United got wind of the bustling striker who was scoring goals for fun.
He played a few games for them before Oran Kearney signed him for Coleraine.
“At the start, I wasn’t in the Coleraine team at all,” Bradley recalls.
“I was playing 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there. I was actually getting scundered, and I said to Oran one day: ‘Are you going to put me in because I’m not hanging about here?’
“He put me in the next game against Ballymena and I scored and got man-of-the-match. That was my first start in the league.
“I played on to January and Coleraine brought in wee Davy McDaid and he was the main striker of the team, which was fair enough because he was coming back from full-time football and I was coming from Kilrea United.”
Bradley moved to Glenavon where he scored 49 goals in a two-and-a-half year spell.
He liked Hamilton instantly.
“The first time I spoke to Gary [Hamilton] I came home and I said to daddy: ‘I’m gonna sign for Glenavon’. I just liked the way he talked. We just clicked.”
He moved back to Coleraine in January of this year and being closer to home suited him.
“The thing I like about Eoin is, if he has an issue with you he’ll tell you,” says Kearney.
“He’ll not be rude about it, whereas sometimes other players might keep things from you and let things simmer. I like his honesty and I find him very easy to work with.
“Other centre forwards in the league would go down and go down easily and get free-kick after free-kick. But the centre halves bounce off Eoin.
“He’ll get bumped and hit three or four times and he’ll still stay on his feet. At times that frustrates me because he doesn’t get as much protection as he should get and maybe gets punished for being so strong.”
Kearney adds: “At times when we do wee drills in training Eoin would be the first to admit that he wouldn’t be the most polished soccer player… We would do crossing and shooting and he would possibly miss a few in training but he’ll get one cross on a Saturday and he’ll find the back of the net with it.
“He’s a phenomenal man for the big occasion. He turns up. He has that enigmatic class about him. He’s just a big-game player. That’s what excites me most about him.”
But when he decided to try his hand at soccer it didn’t go down too well in the GAA heartlands.
How dare the garrison game claim one of its greatest talents?
GAA pundit Joe Brolly had a cut at him.
In 2011, Bradley was playing the football of his life alongside his elder brother Paddy.
But Paddy suffered a cruciate injury earlier that year and his season was over.
A week before Derry’s appearance in the 2011 Ulster final, Eoin suffered the same devastating injury.
“We were playing a training game in Ballinascreen and I was just coming out for a ball; I went to turn and I just seen my knee shaking and I went down. When I was on the ground for a minute or two I was thinking: ‘Maybe I’m alright.’
“I got up and hobbled off and I knew it was bad then.
“I remember I rang Patrick and I said: ‘Come and lift me.’
“I knew I’d done my cruciate and I was out of the Ulster final. I was crying over it. It was a bad old time because that was the two of us missing the Ulster final.
“Paddy got to play in an Ulster final [in 2000]. I didn’t. That year I was flying. I scored 1-5 against Armagh and 1-4 against Fermanagh.
“John Brennan had us going well. I was chatting to John about six weeks ago after we played Cargin in a friendly and he said: ‘If we had you for that Ulster final, we would have beaten Donegal.’
In one of his newspaper articles, Brolly claimed that when ‘Skinner’ did his cruciate, the Derry forward allegedly said: ‘Bang goes my Allstar.’
It’s a claim ‘Skinner’ strongly refutes.
“I never said that. People mentioned to me about Allstars at the start of the year and I always said: ‘I want to win something with the team.’
“Of course I would like to have got an Allstar. What’s the point of playing if you don’t want one? But I never said that.”
With a shrug of the shoulders, Bradley adds: “But Joe’s Joe. He wrote an article about me playing soccer and how big a disgrace it was. The reason why I was playing soccer was because I wanted to play it; I wanted to try something different.
“And then about eight weeks ago he was writing in the paper again and said: ‘Eoin Bradley was right to go and play soccer.’
“There was a picture of me sitting in the changing room and Jimmy Nesbitt is chatting to us. All the blue bags were sitting there and my big Glenullin bag – it’s green, white and yellow – was in the middle of them and with ‘Skinner’ written on it.
“And Joe was saying: ‘This man had to leave Derry football to express himself because Derry football was no good to him anymore.’
“So, it was alright to play soccer after all… Look, people say things. I’ve said things and didn’t mean them and you think: ‘Why did I say that?’
“But that’s Joe’s job and I’m sure he’s getting well enough paid for it… [laughing]”
Bradley doesn’t do negative energy.
The soccer jibes bounce off him in the same way Irish League defenders do every Saturday afternoon.
He wanted to continue playing with Derry but acknowledges that after 10 years his time is over with the county set-up.
Although he was getting paid by Glenavon and Coleraine, Gary Hamilton and Oran Kearney allowed the striker to juggle his GAA commitments.
Brian McIver, the-then Derry manager, tried to accommodate Bradley – and he featured in Derry’s 2015 Championship campaign.
But fully integrating ‘Skinner’ into the set-up ultimately proved problematic for the management team.
“Whenever I did combine the two everything was going well,” says ‘Skinner’.
“And then the more I played the soccer, I didn’t want to leave it.”
He was a big fan of Damian Cassidy’s who took over the Derry senior team in 2008 and ’09.
Cassidy and Paddy Bradley had fallen out but it didn’t stop Eoin from striking up a great rapport with the new manager.
“I never forget it,” says Bradley. “Damian took me aside and said: ‘Eoin, you’re the best footballer in Derry. You’ll never be taken off. I’m telling you now, you’re my man.’
“And I was brilliant that year under Damian. Some managers you take to. I can’t mind what happened between Damian and Patrick; it wasn’t easy for me playing when Patrick wasn’t there and it wasn’t easy for Patrick when I wasn’t there because I fell out with Paddy Crozier.
“Damian had everything down to a tee and he had Kevin [Madden] in with him [who was part of the Glenullin management team that won the 2007 county title].
“Once Damian said that to me, I just bought into what he was saying. If he thought that of me as a player and a person I didn’t want to let him down.”
After assuming the Oak Leaf reins, Cassidy recalls: “A lot of people wouldn’t have been complimentary towards Eoin, and within a short period of time I couldn’t understand why because from a playing and training perspective he was the easiest player I ever worked with.
“There is very little point in going out and saying to Eoin: ‘We’re going out to play in this system and you’re going to fit into it.’
“You’ll not get the best out of him doing that. He’s just not that type of personality.”
Cassidy laments the fact that Bradley made only fleeting appearances for Derry since he entered the Irish League stage in 2013.
“It’s really unfortunate over the last three or four years that they couldn’t marry the two situations [soccer and Gaelic]… You go to Kerry and Kieran Donaghy was playing basketball, so there was accommodation there.
“I think it’s to Derry’s loss that a compromise couldn’t be found. And reading Eoin’s quotes over the years, there was always a conciliatory tone from him and wanting to meet people half way.
“The people who have taken those squads are entitled to manage them whatever they want because you’ve got to be satisfied when you walk away that you did it your way, so I fully respect that aspect of it.
“I just found it odd that he could never be accommodated because the lad was just too good not to be involved. He was just a superb footballer.”
Despite his ambivalence towards Gaelic football, ‘Skinner’ still looks back with great fondness of his 10 years wearing the Oak Leaf jersey.
“It was good to win the National League title and we got on a couple of All-Ireland runs. Jesus, we had some great times. We had great craic.
“Things are nearly too serious now. I mind we won a game in the Qualifiers down around Mayo and we had beer on the bus.
“I’m not saying drink is the way forward, but you see the team spirit we had… it was second to none.
"Maybe we weren’t as fit as some of the top teams but we got as far as them. And that’s because of the team spirit we had.”
It’s a little easier to leave behind now because he’s fallen out of love with Gaelic football, at least at county level.
The free-spirited Glenullin man couldn’t enjoy the defensive evolution of the game.
“I’ve played Gaelic all my life so I think I earned the right to stay on at the soccer and I’m glad I did, because the way Gaelic football is going now I wouldn’t enjoy playing for Derry.
“It’s boring to play, to be honest.
“Gaelic football has turned into a depression. Every time I go on to the pitch to play, there are 14 men behind the ball. It just depresses me. You used to have two men hanging off you and that was okay but it’s got worse.
“Gaelic football is just defence, defence, defence. I just get scundered watching it. Every team’s doing it – every single team. It’s a game of cat and mouse.
“There aren’t many players out there now where you’d say: ‘I’d pay to watch that man’.
“Maybe Conor McManus, Diaramuid Connolly and Michael Murphy. After that, I wouldn’t watch it.
“I’ll never forget daddy saying: ‘Go out and show me what you can do.’
“You’d be 40 yards out and players would be afraid to take a shot. I remember Robin Van Persie telling the story when he was at Man United and the team came in at half-time and Ferguson said: ‘Boys, I’m 64-years-old, would somebody entertain me?’
“That’s the way I look at it. You get boys who are afraid to do this or afraid to do that.
“If there’s an overhead kick on, I’d try it, or I’d try and beat two men…I get one chance at this. I’ll never be back again.”
‘Skinner’ will treat Irish Cup final day like any other Saturday.
He will rise at 6am.
He will have two boiled eggs and watch a few programmes he recorded during the week before Cathoair and Cara come bounding into the room and take over the TV.
He will meet up with his Coleraine team-mates at 9.30am.
The team bus will stop at the Top of the Town for a bite to eat.
‘Skinner’ and Stephen Douglas will keep everyone entertained all the way to south Belfast.
And there will be no pre-final nerves. Not a chance of it.
“I always liked playing in front of big crowds,” smiles ‘Skinner’.
“What is the point of playing sport if you don’t want to play in front of the biggest crowd you can play in front of?
“I’d be mentally tough. I had the leg break when I was 20, the cruciate, broke the collarbone, my AC joint, broke my arm and I broke my ribs and punctured my lung not so long ago.
“I’ve had a lot of bad injuries… I always come back to the same point: what am I training for three and four nights a week? What’s the point in freezing whenever you get there?
“Look forward to it. Embrace it. In the cup final I might have a bad game but that’ll not matter – I’ll still want to be there.”