'This kid, I'm telling you, he's something else': Charting the rise and rise of Liverpool's Conor Bradley
Tyrone teenager Conor Bradley made his competitive debut for Liverpool against Norwich on Tuesday night – Neil Loughran talks to some of those who watched his rise, and finds out that the Red Hands could have been on the radar had things been different…
“WELL, did you watch the match last night? He done well, didn’t he?” The chat never stopped at McHugh’s Oil in Castlederg yesterday, where there was only one name on everybody’s lips.
The previous evening, 18-year-old Conor Bradley had made his competitive debut in the famous red of Liverpool as Jurgen Klopp’s men beat Norwich 3-0 in a Carabao Cup clash at Carrow Road.
Despite giving away a first half penalty, the Tyrone teenager produced an assured performance in the right-back berth normally filled by Trent Alexander-Arnold - his manager gushing about the boy who has risen rapidly through the ranks since joining the club’s youth academy in 2019.
“We saw Conor Bradley and I heard before the game he was the first Northern Irish player [to play a competitive game for the club] since 1954. It sounds too long to be honest,” said Klopp.
“If somebody would have told me that before, I would have brought him in probably earlier. It is a great, great thing and he played a super game.”
The man behind the desk at McHugh’s wore a smile as broad as the German’s famous grin all day long.
Rory Lynch was Bradley’s first soccer coach at Castlederg club St Patrick’s, and has followed his journey every step of the way. A Manchester United fan, it felt “weird to be sitting at the kitchen table cheering on Liverpool”, his heart-rate rising every time Bradley came into view.
“He looked so comfortable… obviously there was penalty, that’s a young head, that’ll come with experience, but the more the game went on the better he got.
“It’s actually a bit surreal to be honest - surreal seeing him on TV against players you’ve been watching for years.”
But was Lynch surprised to see him there? Not a bit of it. For years, he has been telling anybody who would listen that Conor Bradley was a star in the making.
Indeed, Dungannon Swifts underage coach Ciaran O’Kane recalls attending a nine-a-side tournament on the 3G pitch at Stangmore Park around a decade ago.
O’Kane - who coached Bradley with the Swifts U16s - was there with Lurgan outfit Oxford Sunnyside when he got talking to one of the St Patrick’s coaches.
“I can always remember him saying to me ‘this kid here, he’s the best player in his age group in the country’. Conor was only eight or nine at the time.
“You would have heard the like of that but, right enough, he was excellent.”
“That would have been me,” laughs Lynch, “I was always sure.”
And yet it was by chance that he saw Bradley play in the first place.
“Aw, completely by accident.
“It was actually a primary school tournament which I really thought we’d a fantastic chance of winning, but a bug hit the whole team near enough - all our main players were gone. That morning I had no subs, so I was just phoning round, flat to the mat, trying to get somebody, but no joy.”
One of the remaining players, Shay Gallagher, suggested his cousin - Conor Bradley. Only eight, turning nine the next day, Lynch wasn’t having it.
But as the morning wore on, options were running thin on the ground.
“I was beat, totally beat.
“Conor’s house was on the way to the pitch so I rung his mum Linda, and he was happy enough to come along. He was just this small kid, I remember him getting on the bus and his backpack was bigger than him… I was worried he was going to fall backwards. You’re just thinking ‘what am I doing here?’
“Linda was like ‘we’re for Spain tomorrow, make sure nothing happens him’. I was only planning to throw him on quickly if we were winning, but in the first game another one of our players got injured, out for the tournament, so I’d no choice but to put Conor in.”
Linda Bradley’s words ringing in his ears, Lynch warned the young man not to be diving into tackles. Not to be taking anybody on. Playing against boys nearly three years his senior, the instruction was simple: if you get it, give it on straight away.
“But then what’s the first thing Conor does when he’s on the pitch? He ploughs straight into a tackle on some big lad and wins the ball. That was him.
“His pace was a big help but we’ve loads of players with pace. Sometimes players with pace, their brains can’t keep up with their legs, but this kid just had something natural about him. It’s wile hard to explain… I’ve seen a lot of players coming through, and nobody really stood out like that.
“Even Kyle Lafferty, I saw him loads of times playing against our own team, always thought he was a good player but never really stood out as top grade. But Conor… I’d never seen nothing like this.
“He ended up winning player of the tournament and scored the winning goal in the semi-final against a team from Cavan, a header from a corner - at eight years of age. And him no size at all. Honestly, I was in awe… I was like ‘what am I watching here?’”
Lynch told the St Patrick’s U13 manager Adrian Mythen he had to give Bradley a run out. Back then, in the absence of other underage sides, that was the only place within the club he could go.
Like Lynch, Mythen was initially sceptical.
“He says ‘catch yourself on’, but eventually I got him talked into it.
“I mind I came home to meet the minibus and Adrian just walks off and says ‘Jee-sus Christ’. He couldn’t believe it. We knew we had something special on our hands.”
Bradley, though, was equally adept across different sporting disciplines.
Mum Linda was a talented cross-country runner and Conor’s athleticism saw him catch the eye with Finn Valley AC. But Gaelic football also had a claim in those early days.
Last month his cousin Barry McMenamin was part of the Tyrone U17 panel that lost out to Meath in the All-Ireland final, and St Davog’s Aghyaran stalwart Kevin Moss is convinced Bradley would have followed that same path had it not been for the pull of soccer.
“Conor was a very good Gaelic player too, played centre half-forward for us,” said Moss, who managed Bradley at U14 and 16 level.
“He was very fast, very neat… what probably marked him out then was his commitment. Soccer was always his number one, especially when he moved to Dungannon Swifts, but around that he never missed training with us. He would’ve done everything perfect.
“If he’d stayed on he’d definitely have got on a Tyrone minor panel – the speed and the skill he had, he would have played Gaelic football for Tyrone. Whether he would’ve gone on to senior level or not, you never know, but with his attitude he definitely would’ve gone on to bigger things.”
As it was, Bradley continued to develop his skills simultaneously, with St Patrick’s, Castlederg growing as a result of his involvement.
“More and more boys wanted to come and play with us because they wanted to be a part of ‘Conor Bradley’s team’,” says Lynch.
“In my last year, at U16s, we won everything going. That’ll never happen again.”
It was fellow St Patrick’s coach Steafan Deery who first gave Liverpool coach Cliff Ferguson the heads up about this emerging talent, with Bradley training twice a week at the club’s Belfast base. Manchester United and Manchester City were among the other clubs sniffing around, but there was never any doubt where Bradley was bound with those options on the table.
“Conor’s a huge Liverpool fan, so I knew there was only one team he was going to,” says Lynch.
“Liverpool did so well with him because, from no age, they brought him over the odd weekend, for a tournament or something else… just kept him a part of the club.
“When it was time to go, obviously he’s young to be leaving home, but I knew he’d be okay. Conor’s football-mad and he’s very lucky too that his parents are so solid, always had him grounded.
“I’ve seen a lot of talented players go through our club but they just hadn’t that foundation at home. It makes a huge difference. He had the talent and that foundation, that’s why I’d never any doubts he’d do it.”
Ciaran O’Kane had no doubts about Bradley’s ability to succeed either. But the Lurgan man also saw the scale of the challenge that lay ahead – that still lies ahead.
“Yeah, I have to be honest,” he says when asked whether he was surprised just how quickly Bradley had come to the fore at Anfield.
“That’s to take nothing at all away from Conor but, at the end of the day, he’s at Liverpool – it’s one of the biggest clubs in the world. At the minute they have one of the best teams in the world too… arguably Liverpool are ahead of the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid at the minute.
“But then Conor’s the type of boy who will settle in very quickly because of his personality. It’s not that he has an outgoing personality, but he has a determination and a pleasant way about him. He’d be mature for his age.
“He’s obviously impressed at training to the extent where’s he’s been brought up to that level.
Everything has happened so quickly… surprised? Yes. But absolutely delighted for him.
“Getting that kind of experience at such a young age is priceless.”
It is a mark of how highly Bradley is regarded that he signed a long-term contract at Anfield back in July. Having forced his way into Ian Baraclough’s plans with Northern Ireland over the summer, the world looks to be at his feet.
“The only surprise is they’ve not sold Alexander-Arnold yet,” smiles Lynch.
“Conor wants to be the best about, he’s always wanting to get better. I mind so many times driving past Mitchell Park, stopping down and there was Conor, cones set up, him and Steafan Deery just down doing drills by themselves. The cub was always trying to improve.
“You haven’t seen anywhere near Conor’s full potential yet. This kid, I’m telling you, he’s something else.”
And while Tyrone Gaels continue to bask in the glory of their All-Ireland triumph, there is plenty of pride too at watching one of their own edges towards the big time in a different code.
“It’s been a fantastic few weeks,” said Aghyaran chairman Kieran McGuire.
“Obviously Ronan MacNamee has been a big part of our club for many years, his mother’s involved, winning the All-Ireland was just brilliant. And then Conor has given so much to Aghyaran at underage level, now he’s got his opportunity to play professional soccer with his favourite club.
“It’s been phenomenal, and the buzz going around last night on the WhatsApp groups. You can just see the delight in everybody.”