GAA Football

Belnaleck boss Colm Bradley faces his beloved Enniskillen Gaels

Belnaleck manager Colm Bradley clutching a flag at his home club Enniskillen Gaels - the two sides meet in Sunday's Fermanagh SFC semi-final. Pic: Donnie Phair

THE good thing is that the dug-outs are on opposite sides of the Ederney pitch," says Colm Bradley with a chuckle.

The Belnaleck manager will not only face his own club, Enniskillen Gaels, in Sunday's second Fermanagh SFC semi-final, but his own brother, Simon, who coaches the town outfit.

The younger Bradley admits he wears his heart on his sleeve – and it's red now, not the yellow and blue of the Gaels which he donned with such distinction.

At least one of the Bradley brothers have been involved in each of the nine county championship successes for Enniskillen since 1987, when Simon was a 16-year-old, right through to the last, a scarcely believable 15 years ago. Then Simon was the manager and Colm a player, who had featured prominently in the famous six-in-a-row from 1998 to 2003 inclusive.

On Sunday, though, they'll be on opposite sides, and Colm is determined to take the unheralded Art McMurrough's club through to their first senior final since 1945.

He's already enjoyed/ endured one Championship semi-final victory over the Gaels, three years ago en route to winning the Intermediate crown in his first season in charge of Belnaleck.

"Before the game, and during it, there were no mixed emotions, no split loyalties or anything like that. Afterwards, it was different than other games. It's hard to describe. Growing up, I played with the Gaels all my life.

"I wouldn't be the calmest on the sideline anyway… I'm like Rory Gallagher, I try to kick every ball. You get so engrossed in the game and just want your team to win."

He won't hide his passion this Sunday either, even with Simon opposing him. Nine years older, Simon was Colm's hero growing up:

"I followed him round everywhere. I followed him to county Minor practice when I was eight or nine. I was the wee pest of a young fella on the side of a pitch with a ball.

"I was mascot in '87 for the Gaels championship team. I would have just wanted to be him when I was growing up. I didn't have to look too far for a role model.

"He didn't play as long as he'd have liked with injuries, and that happened to me too at county level, so we never together at county level, which was a disappointment. But we have plenty of good memories at club level.

"Obviously we're both competitive. I probably show it more than he does, I'm animated on the sidelines. I'm sure there's lots of Gaels people aren't happy with what they see from me on the sideline with Belnaleck.

"I'm happy enough though because I'm so invested in the community here, so invested in this group of players."

Bradley, who runs his own digital marketing/PR company 'Hype & Holler', doesn't have to build up what this clash means to him personally:

"The GAA have this motto, 'One Life, One Club'; some marketing guru came up with it. It's true.

"No matter what I do over the rest of my career, it's never going to dilute what Enniskillen Gaels mean to me. But it doesn't mean I can't be all in with Belnaleck – and I am all in with them.

"I've seen how hard they've worked. A lot of this team would only have played under me at senior level. I know what they've put in."

He's lived in the little village south-west of his hometown since 2005, and been manager from early 2018, but it's more than just another managerial role for him, he insists:

"I managed Swanlinbar [in Cavan], I managed Tempo too – Belnaleck is a lot different. I'd have known a lot of the players before I took over. It's not quite the same as your typical 'outside man'; I live closer to the ground than probably three-quarters of the team."

The progress they've made has been remarkable, both before and since his arrival. "When I moved here they weren't a senior club. Themselves and Coa, their club's first team would have played against other clubs' reserve sides.

"Around 14, 15 years ago they'd a really good group that won the U16A Championship, Kane Connor among them, and when they got to their 20s they made the step up to senior level. I played against them once or twice after the Gaels had been relegated to Division Two."

The breakthrough came with victory in their third consecutive Fermanagh Junior Championship final in 2017, when they also reached the Ulster Club Final.

Bradley took charge for the next season, and before the end of 2019 they had, astonishingly, taken Derrygonnelly to a senior semi-final replay, which the Harps won before completing five-in-a-row.

The eventual Fermanagh champions knocked them out again last year, Ederney on that occasion, and Bradley suggests those results illustrate the mindset in Belnaleck:

"To be honest, with these players there's no real inferiority complex playing anybody. That's something we've worked on very hard as a management team.

"The first thing I said to them when I met them back in January 2018 was 'We're a senior championship team – we're just not there yet'.

"Even when teams have beaten us – Derrygonnelly two years ago, Ederney last year – it wasn't because we were afraid of the opposition. When Derrygonnelly beat us in the replay they just played better on the day; Ederney just played better last year, we didn't perform well."

Belnaleck don't lack talent. "There's a lot of county experience in the team, you've got Che Cullen, Kane [Connor], Darragh McGurn, and others have been knocking around – Garrett Kavanagh has been on the Fermanagh panel, Fergal Keenan and Conor McAuley too, although he's injured and not playing. There were six on the Hogan Cup squad [when St Michael's, Enniskillen won in 2019]."

This season has already been a qualified success, finishing sixth in the 10-team Division One then securing senior championship status for 2022 by beating Teemore in the quarter-finals.

"Everyone basically told me at the start of the year that we'd be doing well to stay up. We're missing Lee Cullen for a second year, Ciaran McBrien is not available, he's in Australia as well. Conor McAuley has been injured all year, Darragh McBrien is playing soccer and contracted to Dungannon [Swifts].

"There's four players, if other teams lost them, they'd be worried. We just haven't worried about it, we've just got on with it. The number of players with very little championship experience who have stepped up for us, that's been the most pleasing thing for me. When we get those players back over the next couple of years we're going to have a really deep squad of talent.

"But there's no reason we can't go on and do things this year without them – and that's the message we've been saying."

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