Andy Watters: Going down the Conor Bradley route

Tyrone’s Liverpool star plays with sparkling exuberance of youth and makes it look so easy

Conor Bradley impressed in Liverpool’s 4-1 win over Chelsea
Conor Bradley celebrates his brilliant goal for Liverpool against Chelsea at Anfield (Peter Byrne/PA)

“OR you could go down the Conor Bradley route…” offered the teacher, keeping a straight face, by way of an alternative after he had extolled the undeniable virtues of getting the head down and studying hard for your GCSEs at the young fella’s parent-teacher meeting.

“Aye, well sir, ok, I’ll go down the Conor Bradley route then sir. Thank you sir,” is the reply every young lad in the school would give if the choice was, in any sense, a realistic career pathway which, of course, it isn’t.

The Conor Bradley route just isn’t an option for probably any of them.

This year has been refreshingly brilliant for sport of all kinds so far and long may it continue. The West Indies no-hopers beating Australia, Monaghan surprising everyone but themselves against Dublin, the 49ers making the Super Bowl… There have been lots of highlights already and the emergence of Tyrone youngster Bradley at Liverpool has capped off a really good January.

Bradley plays with that sparkling exuberance of youth and he is making it all look so easy, so natural, like he’s kicking a ball about with his mates.

The way he strolled onto a pass before half-time at Anfield against a Chelsea side absolutely stoked with multi-million pound signings and stroked a brilliant finish into the corner for his first goal was top class.

Then, in the second half, he glided past a defender on the right wing and crossed the ball brilliantly onto the head of Szoboszlai for Liverpool’s third… It was magic (and I’m not a Liverpool fan).

He has the world at his feet and he hasn’t come from out of the blue either. Last season, while on loan at Bolton Wanderers, he won the club Player of the Year, the Players’ Player of the Year and the Young Player of the Year.

So he’s got a great chance to go on and I’m sure we all hope that he keeps it between the ditches and fulfils his talent. It isn’t always the way, unfortunately. Who knows how many lads Bradley started out with who haven’t got to where he is now? Perspiration versus inspiration… It’s the eternal conundrum.

Pete McGrath managed Eamonn Burns to two All-Ireland titles in 1991 and 1994.
Former Down, Fermanagh and Louth boss Pete McGrath remains a successful manager on the club scene

I was chatting to a fella not so long ago who was telling me about how he broke into the Down team a few years back. He got a start in the National League but, for one reason or another, it didn’t work out for him.

He had the talent and the athletic ability but that bit you can’t fix just wasn’t quite right. You can get a player fitter and stronger, you can make them run faster, jump higher, kick with both feet… But it’s almost impossible to do anything with their attitude.

You can’t get into someone’s head with a screwdriver or a pair of pliers and tweak the little dial five degrees one way or the other and fix whatever is required with confidence, or attitude, or ego, or whatever.

So my friend drifted away from Down. He’d got there but didn’t take his chance and that chance never came again. A few years later he happened to meet his old manager Pete McGrath and he stopped to chat with him and thanked him for giving him the opportunity. He apologised for not taking it.

Pete told him not to worry.

“There were hundreds (like you),” he said.

It was a reality check for my friend. He wasn’t special – not at all – in fact he was the norm, the special ones are the ones who put the work in. Over his many years as a manager, Pete had seen so many talented lads come and go. He brought them in and gave them a go but the rest was down to the player.

On the same theme, I listened to an extraordinary interview this week with a former international sportsman who had burst onto the scene with a lot of success but then faded away almost as quickly. In all, he had three years at the top and was basically washed up, having wasted chance after chance and burned bridge after bridge, by the age of 28 when he really should have been coming into his prime.

It’s fair to say that his attitude stank and, despite plenty of warnings, somehow the penny never dropped that he needed to change.

“I was lazy, I didn’t like to train,” he admitted.

“I was just using my talent with a little bit of work. I wasn’t one of those guys who would get up an hour earlier in the morning to do the extra work. I went to training when training was called but I wasn’t going to stay back after training and do the extra work. I don’t think I reached the stage in my career where I recognised that you needed hard work to improve, I was living off my talent.

“People heard a lot of rumours (about me). Womaniser… Didn’t have any discipline, being with a team-mate’s woman, being with the coach’s woman…”

Not a long or successful career then, but definitely a colourful one.

At that parent-teacher meeting there were plenty of underage GAA coaches in the queues looking forward to the season starting again and promising to give each other a shout for an early challenge match or two.

Before a ball is thrown in it would be no harm to remind young players about the importance of a good attitude and a willingness to work hard.

Who knows how far they’ll get, but we want them all to go down the Conor Bradley route.