IN FOCUS: Under the skin – Eoin Bradley

Eoin Bradley’s career has went around a few corners, but his love for sport has never waned. Michael McMullan went to meet him…

IT’S Friday morning in Glenullin and Eoin Bradley is buzzing. Football has dominated his life and nothing has changed.

Noel Trainor, the club’s 1985 championship winning goalkeeper, greets him on arrival.

Sunday was all about Glenullin and booking a spot in the Derry Intermediate Championship final.

“Have you a game tomorrow,” enquires Noel, the club’s groundsman who has Seán Ó Maoláin Park in lush condition.

The previous night, Glenavon manager Gary Hamilton, without a win in four games, gathered the troops ahead of Saturday’s 5-0 win over Dungannon Swifts.

Nine minutes into the second half, ‘Skinner’ latches onto a long ball into his path on the right wing. As he dribbles right footed there is no danger, but he cuts inside before lashing their second goal with the left peg.

His older brother Paddy took over as manager of Glenullin this season, from their father Liam.

With Castledawson proving a tough nut to crack, Eoin’s 1-2 tally helped a misfiring side find enough to step over the finish line and into a final meeting with neighbours Drumsurn.

It’s one weekend, but a snapshot of a football fanatic. From as long as he can remember, he was up at Glenullin pitch.

“When your Daddy is into football, it was only natural,” Eoin began. “I can remember being up here every night of the week since I was four or five years of age.

“He was coaching Patrick’s teams (he is three years older) so you were up whenever he was going and he was still playing bits and pieces for the reserves, so you were up at senior training every night.”

At 11, he did goals on the u-14 team and within four years made his senior league debut in attack.

All u-8, u-10, u-12 training was all the same night, with a wall of blitzes and games littered across the summer. It was heaven.

“All you wanted to do when you were younger was play football and this is where Patrick and Daddy were at,” he said.

Despite moving to Kilrea, Liam would ferry his sons to Glenullin for training with the music blaring.

“My memories were going up and Da was a while man for singing and us all in the back singing away too.”

When not banging in goals, he is a plasterer by trade, working alongside his father Liam.

There is family and then there is football. School books never motivated him the way sport did.

He was a regular at Celtic games and had a poster of his idol Ryan Giggs on his bedroom wall.

While he’d watch soccer, there was no great desire to play it outside of the Kilrea United team, organised by his father and local barber Davy Shiels, in the Saturday afternoon league.

There was a stint with Maghera Colts and Ballymoney Youth, but GAA pulled hardest on his heartstrings.

As a teenager he joined Gary Deighan for a trial at Ballymena United, but after one training session he picked Derry minors ahead of giving it a proper go.

“Glenullin were flat out and we were going well at that stage in Division One and I was starting to play for Derry, so I never really thought anything about it,” Eoin points out.

As he got older, while tipping away with Kilrea United, John Paul McMullan asked him if he wanted to give Ballymoney United a go.

Seven goals in four games and finding the net in the cup against Ballymena United alerted Coleraine manager Oran Kearney.

“I remember watching Kilrea against Banagher up in Maghera in the Senior Championship. I got a message when I came home saying I might want a chance at the Irish League,” Bradley remembers of the initial approach.

It was close to deadline day. Kearney had made the approach and the deal was done.

“My fee was a pre-season friendly and they (Ballymoney) got the gate receipts…that’s how it started,” he laughs.

The weeks passed and Bradley never got the call. Out of frustration he told the gaffer, on the eve of their clash with Ballymena, he wasn’t in Coleraine to sit on the bench.

Kearney put him in, with Bradley hitting the net in a man of the match showing on his debut and it took off from there.

“I stayed there until Christmas,” he continued. “I would’ve stayed on only they signed Davy McDaid from York City. He was coming back from full-time football and a big name.”

But the goals Bradley banged in against Glenavon prompted Gary Hamilton to put in a bid.

After playing on their 2016 Irish Cup winning team, Bradley made a return to Coleraine and after losing out to Linfield in the final the following season, he bagged a goal in the 2018 decider to pick up a second medal.

A DIFFERENT GLEN…Eoin Bradley in action during his latest stint with Glenavon. Picture: Maynard Collins

“I have been everywhere with them, I have been lucky,” he said of his soccer innings. “I have travelled around Europe seven years in a row. I have been to Iceland twice, Belarus, Norway…places you’d never go on holidays.

“They were great memories, but it was the same with Derry. I played for 10 years, we stayed in the best hotels and you were treated like royalty too. You are away on the bus for weekends, and sport has been good to me.”

Glenullin were always punching above their weight at underage. In the old underage championship system Dungiven usually emerged as top dogs from North Derry before playing in the All-County final.

In 1996 it was different as Glenullin emerged only to run into an all-conquering Ballinderry team. The previous year, Glenullin managed a single point in a 35-point hammering at the hands of the Shamrocks in the u-14 All-County Féile, a margin that stretched to 40 in the 1997 Féile.

At minor level, also on a county-wide format, the ‘Glen crossed paths with the Shamrocks in 1999 with Ballinderry as red hot title favourites. The game hung in the balance until Paddy Bradley drilled a 14-yard free past the goalkeeper and two defenders to the net to pull off a shock.

His brother Eoin played at corner-forward and still feels those chastening encounters did them no harm on their pathway to senior.

By that stage he had a first senior outing against a Bellaghy side in the middle of their three-in-a-row and on their way to Ulster glory.

“Peter Diamond was marking me and I never forget it, he was sticky,” Eoin recalls. “I remember they beat us 5-24 to 0-4.

“I took a couple of points off him and won a penalty, big Ruairi Boylan took it and he missed it…he wouldn’t let me hit it.”

Glenullin were on the wrong end of a few hammerings, but with their county players all back in the fold late in the season they always mustered enough points to beat the drop.

“You had plenty of experience in that changing room…’Thorny’ (Colm Rafferty), Ruairi (Boylan), ‘Basil’ (Rafferty), those type of players,” Bradley remembers.

“Those boys were shouting and roaring in around a changing room, it would’ve had the hairs standing on the back of your neck, there were some great memories.”

He doesn’t buy into the concept of young players needing babysat during their early years or not being allowed to play in the year above. It didn’t do him any harm. If you are good enough then you’re old enough.

“Cathaoir (Eoin’s son) is 17 and he is nearly the size of me and I would be expecting him to play for Kilrea seniors next year,” Bradley said.

In the early noughties, Glenullin were climbing to the top of the pile. With the young guns fusing into the old guard, the perfect mix began to emerge

“We were very close in a few games and knew there were boys coming through, with Daddy as the manager at the time,” Bradley said, as the 2007 championship winning puzzle began to assemble.

“Myself, Gerard (O’Kane), Tiddles (Brian Mullan) and Patrick. There was a core of us boys there, then you have Dominic (McIlvar) and a few that were five or six years older.”

In a rural area, football was all there was. Nothing else mattered. But even though Glenullin were running the top teams close, Eoin never fully believed they’d get their hands on the John McLaughlin Cup.

That’s where his father came in.

“No matter what club he is with, he has that belief,” Bradley said of his influence. “He would not take a team if he didn’t believe he’d win a championship. That was the same with us that time, he kept saying we’d win a championship.

“If a manager doesn’t believe he can win a championship, how will the players believe?”

All the pieces came together. Kevin Madden came on board as trainer and they went to work. They needed luck along the way, but it was their semi-final win over Ballinderry that flicked the switch.

“We played them down in Bellaghy,” he said of the day his brother kicked 0-10 in an eight-point win to tear up their underdogs’ tag.

‘Skinner’ still has an inkling Ballinderry felt they were caught on the hop, but strongly disagrees.

“Were they f**k. We were going toe to toe with them and destroyed them,” he said.

A Basil Rafferty goal helped them back into contention against Bellaghy in the final, who hit two late points to level the game before Glenullin breathed a sigh of relief when the Tones missed a chance to win the game

“It went to a replay and there was only one winner,” he said of their 0-10 to 1-6 win despite kicking 17 wides.

Paddy Bradley notched the winner to cap off a weekend which saw him collect his All-Star.

“We knew were good enough, but the biggest regret is that we only got one,” Eoin highlights.

“We should’ve had two or three with that team, but that’s football and there is no point in worrying about that now.

“The green and gold flags in Celtic Park, there were thousands there. That’s a great memory.”

The celebrations spilled into the Monday, spreading to hostelries in Maghera, Swatragh and Kilrea.

“There were a couple of days drinking and we went on a tour and I think only six or seven of us lasted that,” he said of the sketchy memories as the days merged into one big party.

“Those memories last a lifetime and I have always said that was my best achievement in sport was winning a championship with Glenullin.

“We didn’t have an influx of players like other clubs had, we were lucky. On that 2007 team, nearly everybody was related in some way.”

As Glenullin prepare for next Sunday’s intermediate decider, Bradley is still a marked man. Niall Keenan tracked his every move in their semi-final win over Castledawson with another defender lingering to limit the space.

It’s not new and pressure isn’t a factor. Instead, he thrives on it.

“I always love playing in front of a big crowd with more people watching you, even from I was younger,” he states with total conviction.

“I was out a couple of Sunday mornings there on my own, with nobody about, practising, so if I can’t enjoy it when people are watching me, what is the point.

“I am 38 now; I am not going to be here for another 10 years, so you want to make every minute count.”

Both GAA and soccer rub off each other. The smaller soccer pitch improves sharpness and an awareness of how to maximise space. The twisting and turning transforms him into a unpredictable entity on the wider spaces of a GAA pitch with a packed defence to unlock.

The downside is the aging limbs taking longer to recover. The next day is fine, but the legs send out the mayday signals on the second day.

“I find now, the older you get, it takes you a longer time to recover. It used to be I could’ve played two or three games over a couple of days.

“Last week I played 20 minutes last Friday night and I would be grand the next day. If I played on a Sunday, on a Tuesday I couldn’t move. It’s never the next day.”

But the weaving nature of his game doesn’t all come from soccer. Gut instinct carries him halfway there. A club defender was quoted as saying ‘Skinner’ doesn’t know what he going to do next, so a marker had little chance of capping him away from the danger area.

“Even in underage, I could’ve done anything,” Bradley said. “I could come for a ball and swing it with the boot or I could do anything.

“And, until that thought, I didn’t really know. I think that’s what made me the player I was, the unpredictability.”

He looks at top players now, devoid of that ambition to cut across a defender and go for the jugular. Everything is so regimented.

“I remember Daddy drilling it into me and Patrick since we were seven or eight years of age, get the ball and take the man on,” he said.

THE THREE AMIGOS…Liam Bradley encouraged his sons Patrick and Eoin to always take on their marker

And so the name ‘Skinner’ was born, from skinning players with his devastating pace. Even now, the first instinct is to take the defender’s ground.

The soccer background helped the GAA and it was a two-way street. Holding off defenders in the Derry club leagues built strength and aggression which left making space for himself in a crowded soccer penalty area an easy street.

Most county players cut their teeth in the world of Ulster Schools football, but Eoin Bradley passed through five years at St Patrick’s, Maghera without silverware. His taste of MacRory Cup action was sour as they went down in a quarter-final to a Ronan Clarke and Sean Cavanagh inspired St Patrick’s, Armagh team on their way to the Hogan Cup final.

“I never took football very serious…I played it,” he said, referring to an initial inferiority complex of not coming from one of the bigger clubs laden with trophies.

“I realised at 17 or 18 that I was better than anybody, that’s the mentality I had. When Daddy took over the seniors, he told us that nobody was better than us.”

A fleeting Derry minor career included leaving the panel before the 2000 Ulster win final win after not making the squad for the semi-final and a one-game championship 12 months later following an exit to eventual All-Ireland champions Tyrone, again with Sean Cavanagh on board.

The confidence from his club senior form caught the attention of Derry senior manager Mickey Moran at the start of the 2004.

After making his debut in the McKenna Cup against Antrim, he found himself out for over a year with a broken leg from a challenge from Finnian Moriarty against UUJ at Ballinascreen in the next round.

A scar running the length of his lower leg remains a reminder of the mental and physical courage to come back from an injury his surgeon rated as career-ending.

Derry got to the All-Ireland semi-final, but Bradley’s year was over and he still didn’t have full confidence in its strength by the following year’s league campaign.

“We played a club game and somebody hit me a rattle on the leg,” Bradley said, thumping his fist off the side of his calf muscle. “It was the best thing that ever happened me, I knew I could take the hit.”

He was back in the starting line-up by the time they bowed out of Ulster against Armagh at Casement Park.

By their Qualifiers’ away day against Down in Páirc Esler his form at dipped. Seeing Fergal McEldowney warming up and not being in the game, Bradley sensed the curly finger was beckoning for him.

“I knew it was me,” he said. “Then, two minutes later (Kevin) McCloy broke a ball down, Fergal (Doherty) gave it to me, I ran the whole field and put it into the top corner.

“I watched that goal back, I had pace and I was very lucky because not many boys would’ve caught me… myself and Dominic McIlvar were always in the top two in the runs.

“I always said Dominic was one of my favourite players growing up. He had that dummy and everybody fell for it. He’ll tell you himself, he didn’t take it that serious and he could’ve played for Derry.”

Was it his best goal ever? It certainly defined him. His Irish Cup final goal makes the shortlist.

Also in the conversation was a strike to shock Bellaghy in the championship when he flicked a high ball over the head of marker David O’Neill before volleying to the net.

Bradley and manager Paddy Crozier had a fallout early in the 2007 season, but the Derry boss recalled him to the squad after losing to Monaghan in the Ulster semi-final ahead of another summer of Qualifier action.

Games came and went, but he was still rooted on the bench – even in a comfortable win over Laois in Breffni Park.

Despite kicking three first-half points, Paul Murphy made way for Eoin Bradley for the second half of their quarter-final against the Dubs in Croke Park.

“I was rusty and missed two goals. I maintain to this day, if he had gave me the 10 or 15 minutes against Laois I would’ve been sharper,” he said of the pulsating clash.

The following season, Derry were Division One NFL champions, but Bradley quickly changes the conversation away from their win over Kerry, describing that Oakleaf side as a “good league team” and wonders how they didn’t lift an Ulster title.

“Patrick, myself, Gerard (O’Kane), Fergal Doherty, McCloy, Lockhart, ‘Deets’ (Conleith Gilligan), Enda (Muldoon), Johnny McBride, Paul McFlynn and (Barry) Gillis,” he rattles off the names.

“If you go through the players we had for that period of ten years…there is not a team that will go down in history with the players we had that didn’t win an Ulster title.”

They’d beat anyone on their day, but lacked the consistency of Armagh and Tyrone at the top end.

“Those teams were doing strength and conditioning. Some boys, myself included, didn’t take it seriously,” Bradley admits.

“If you knew then what you know now, you’d have done some things differently. A league for that squad of players was a poor return.”

When Damian Cassidy came on board at the start of the 2009 season, he paid Bradley a visit to his home in Kilrea.

“Eoin, you are the best forward in Ulster,” Cassidy told him. “I will never take you off in a game because I know you will always come good for me. I really bought into it and there was no bullshit.

“He told me he knew it was in me and I played some great football for that man, I really enjoyed it.”

It was the same when John Brennan took over for the 2011 season. A cruciate injury robbed Derry of his brother Paddy, but Brennan got the most out of Bradley junior.

“He was a character and I get on with that type of person,” Eoin said. “I still get on with John and he would be texting me before games.”

At 14 stone, he was in the shape of his life until tearing his cruciate in an in-house game the week before their Ulster final.

PICK IT OUT…Eoin Bradley finishes past Paul Hearty in the 2011 Ulster SFC semi-final

“I was in some nick at that time. That was in my mind and I knew that no matter who [I was playing against],” he said of that 2011 season.

“If I had been playing in that Ulster final (against Donegal), we would’ve won. I know the McGees (Neil and Eamonn) were there, but I wouldn’t have cared. At that time, in my head, I would’ve destroyed anybody.”

“McCloy was marking me and he had burst away forward and told Ogie (Brian Óg McAlary) to cover him,” he said of the injury.

After an innocuous challenge, Bradley looked down and saw his knee move. He makes the popping noise he remembers on that fateful Sunday in Ballinascreen.

The first few minutes gave him hope, but within the hour the pain was unbearable.

“I rang Patrick from the treatment table to say I did my cruciate…he was crying and asked me if I was joking,” Eoin recalls.

“That year, I would’ve probably have got an All-Star. Even if we had been beaten by Donegal, you’d have been in the Qualifiers.”

After breath-taking performances, capped off by tearing Armagh asunder with another fine individual goal, he felt one performance in Croke Park would’ve convinced the selectors.

Once again, a talented Derry team were the championship bridesmaids. For Bradley, it was another year of rehab and a mental struggle of not being away from his happy place – taking on defences.

“Some people don’t come back the same player. I came back better from when I was 26 or 27 until now,” he said feeling it was best he’d played for the club.

Michael O’Kane, manager of Glenullin and his cousin, gave him the freedom of expression.

“For the couple of years he was there, I was getting the ball and going up and down the pitch,” he said. “That night against Loup up at Owenbeg in the championship, I beat them on my own.”

Now, sitting in the bench, looking across Glenullin pitch and the blue sky beyond, Bradley sums his career up in a nutshell. He speaks as he plays, purely on instinct.

“Look, sport has been good to me,” he said. “There have been a few injuries and I can do nothing about that. In soccer one day, I hit the post and fractured three ribs and punctured a lung playing for Coleraine.”

His Derry and Glenullin days should’ve yielded more silverware, but he quickly moves on.

“I had some of the best times of my life. Glenullin winning the championship, winning the National League, travelling around Ireland and Europe,” he sums up with total enthusiasm.

“I don’t know anybody that can say you did both (soccer and GAA) and I did. I am 38 now and I want to keep on playing on as long as I can. I now find myself enjoying football more and I know there are not that many years left.”

He immediately ranks Sean Marty Lockhart as his toughest opponent with every training session treated as if it was in the white heat of summer action. And there was never any need for a sweeper. Boxing in his youth gave him the footwork to match anyone.

“I always say to this day, he helped me become the player I was,” Bradley admits. “At one of my first training sessions, he beat the life out of me and told me it’d make me a better player.”

The best teammate question brings an equally prompt answer – Patrick.

“I know he is my brother, but at the end of the day, his scoring rate averages alone tells you story. It would’ve been better if he passed me the ball,” he jokes.

They’d always chat coming up to big games, with the visit of Kevin McCloy and his pre-game Chinese almost part of the ritual.

For all their scoring exploits, Eoin feels they got a raw deal with people giving out about their contribution.

“We (the Bradley brothers) got blamed for stuff in Derry…it was nearly our fault that we were scoring too much,” he said.

“If they weren’t contributing, it was me and Patrick’s fault. That’s the biggest load of balls. At the end of the day, it wasn’t our fault we were the main scorers.

“If you look at any good teams, they only have a couple of scorers and the rest of the team fit in around it.”

With his 23-year senior club career heading into its final furlongs, will it be golf or management that will satisfy his competitive edge then the boots eventually get hung up?

“Manager, definitely,” he replied instantly. “I want to go into management and coaching. I think I would be good at it. It’s in the family. Daddy is a manager and Patrick is manager.

“I did a bit of coaching with Emma’s (Eoin’s wife) uncle Colm O’Neill with Cathaoir’s u-16 team in Kilrea.”

Their daughter Cara is mixing camogie and soccer, with the inkling of adding ladies Gaelic football to the weekly activities.

Eoin has his FIFA B licence badge tucked away, but coaching is for another day. Now it’s Glenullin time once again. Back to Noel Trainor’s question about a busy weekend. Eoin Bradley continues to divide his eye for goal between the Glens – Glenavon and Glenullin.

“The club (Glenullin) have had nothing to shout about…when your senior team is going well, your club is going well,” he concludes.

If it’s not a busy enough few weeks for the Bradleys, their sister Aine (O’Neill) hopes for an intermediate camogie medal with Kilrea this weekend with father Liam hoping to steer Ballymena to a play-off victory over Aghagallon and into senior football.

Everything has turned full circle. ‘Skinner’ is among the old guard watching their kids burling points after senior training with the hope of following in the footsteps. There will always be a next generation. Sport depends on it.

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