Conor Bradley – the making of a star

By Niall Gartland

WHEN a young lad makes it all the way to the bright lights of the multi-billion pound business that is the famed Premier League, you can rest assured that it didn’t come about by chance.

Conor Bradley made his Premier League debut for Liverpool at the weekend and he delivered a typically poised performance, assisting a goal in their 4-0 rout of Bournemouth.

Interviewed by Sky Sports after the game, Bradley said that he had dreamt of this moment since he was five-years-old. In another post-match interview, manager Jürgen Klopp sung his praises while social media was awash with positive comments about the 20-year-old who has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the summit of the soccer world.

Thousands of youngsters across these Islands grow up aspiring to a professional soccer career. It’s a cut-throat business in that respect with the chances of succeeding virtually infinitesimal, so it’s no great surprise to learn that Bradley is not just a dab hand with a football, but someone laced with the finest interpersonal qualities. A primadonna he certainly is not.

Bradley, now 20, joined the youth academy of Liverpool in 2019 on a scholarship programme and signed his first professional contract with the club a year later.

He had been fast-tracked through Omagh CBS in order to complete his GCSEs, and none other than Kenny Daglish made a personal plea to Bradley at that juncture to turn his nose at the competing attentions of clubs like perennial rivals Manchester United. He was just that good.

Bradley was also steeped in GAA and never lost sight of that, even when joining the ranks of Liverpool looked a fait accompli.

He grew up in the village of Killen, a stone’s throw from the border with Donegal, and played his youth football with nearby Aghyaran.

He was also a supernaturally talented yet entirely ego-free gaelic footballer during his school-days with Omagh CBS.

His lead coach at the time was Pat McNabb, whose affection for Conor is undiluted with the passing of time. Indeed. McNabb is positively effusive about Bradley and anecdotes about his time at the ‘Brothers’ flow freely from a man who has overseen plenty of gifted gaelic footballers in his day.

Take his winning contribution to Omagh CBS’ surge to the inaugural Oisin McGrath Cup, the Year Eight competition organised in memory of the pupil who had tragically died in a playground incident at St Michael’s Enniskillen that previous February.

Bradley, stationed at right-half forward, scored 1-1 in their victory over Abbey CBS in the final, but it was his performance against St Pat’s Maghera in the semi-final that has entered Omagh CBS folklore. With fewer than five minutes remaining, they trailed by eight points but Bradley, quite ridiculously, scored a hat-trick of goals in the blink of an eye to seal a spot in the final.

Roy of the Rovers stuff, as McNabb recalls, “St Pat’s were a bloody good team and Conor scored three incredible individual goals in about four minutes.

“I remember talking to William McAteer, the teacher taking the Maghera team, after the game. He said, referring to Conor McGillion, ‘Jesus Pat, your number six is good, but who the hell is that number 10 [Bradley].”

“To this day, whenever William takes a St Pat’s Maghera team, and he’s promoting resilience and a never-say-die attitude to the young lads, he always talks about the day he met Conor Bradley.”

“That game summed up everything about Conor and his will to win. He had the workrate of Brian Dooher, the ability to carry a ball of Brian McGuigan and the composure in front of goal of Peter Canavan, but it was his attitude that marked him out as something special. You could be eight or 80 points down and there would be one lad still giving it everything on the pitch and that’s Conor Bradley, and you see that trait right now with the soccer.”


CONOR Bradley was on Liverpool’s radar from his early days at the CBS.

The Anfield-based club were so keen on the soccer starlet that they signed off on the employment of a new member of the teaching staff to enable Bradley to skip a year and complete his GCSEs before making the move across the Irish Sea. By coincidence, that teacher would be Anthony McMenamin, Conor’s cousin, while the late Dominic O’Hara quipped at the time that the Brothers had eaten into Liverpool’s transfer budget.

All the while, Bradley stayed as grounded as ever – at one point opting not to mention that he’d won a ‘Players’ Player of the Tournament award’ at a prestigious tournament in Hamburg.

School coach Pat McNabb said, ”He went away for weekends at Liverpool and sometimes he’d go off for week-long tournaments. And one thing we learnt about him early on, and this gives you an indication of his character, is that when he went away he’d tell nobody bar his closest friends.

“Other than that, not a sinner at school would know he was away. He also continued to take part in PE even if he was heading away that Friday to Liverpool. There were no notes coming in from his mother or father saying, ‘Conor’s got trials at the weekend’.”

He continued, “I remember speaking to him after a week in Hamburg and all the top teams were there – PSG, Barcelona, Juventus and so on. I asked him how he’d got on and he said it was grand, that he enjoyed it.

“On those trips he’d generally play in the one position so they could get a good look at him and he played on the right side of midfield. I asked him if he scored and he said he didn’t, and that was that.

“Then during break-time in the staffroom I was talking to a colleague from Strabane, Oran McGranaghan, and he threw me the Derry Journal and said have a look at that. There was a half-page article on the Liverpool U14s spending the week in Hamburg and how at the end of the week the players voted for the Player of the Tournament and that player was Conor Bradley.

“He hadn’t even mentioned it, and how good must he have been that he won that award despite not scoring a goal?”

With the introduction of a new FA ruling stipulating that clubs could no longer recruit non-English players into their academies, it looked like Conor’s burgeoning soccer career could have been stopped dead in its tracks.

Word of a cull spread like wildfire, but in effect Conor turned out to be the exception to the rule.

McNabb said, “The talk was that boys were being called down to an office and were being released from the Academy. As it turns out, about 20 14-year-olds ended up released due to the new ruling.

“I remember his mother [Linda] telling me that Conor was really worried about what was happening.

“But instead of being called down to the office like the other lads, he was called down to the canteen and he was faced with a number of his coaches, a health and well-being officer, and in amongst them all was Kenny Dalglish.

“They spoke to him and not only assured him that he was not being released, but they appealed for him and his mum not to talk to any other clubs because Man United had enquired about taking him on a trial. This was a meeting of the who’s who and it shows you how keen Liverpool were on him.”

Bradley played his last ever game with Omagh CBS in the Brock Cup final of 2019, where they upstaged favourites St Patrick’s Cavan to claim the silver-ware. But here’s the nub – he was supposed to be thousands of miles away in Bulgaria with Liverpool instead.

“The final was set for Friday, April 12, 2019 in Emyvale,” said McNabb.

“This clashed with a Liverpool tournament in Bulgaria and I came up with all the lies I could to Seamus Woods about why the final couldn’t go ahead on that day. I wanted the Brock Cup final moved back a week but nothing could be done.

“Eventually I got to the stage where I accepted that I wouldn’t have Conor for the final, that it just wasn’t going to happen.

“That week on Wednesday at 3.30pm in the staffroom one of the teachers said Conor was looking me, I phoned him on his way home and I said, ‘you were looking me, Conor?’

“He said, ‘I just want to let you know I’m pulling out of the Liverpool trip to Bulgaria.’

“It was a massive decision to make and I asked him if he’d told his mum. He said that he had, but that it was to be his last game of Gaelic football, a final with the school and that he wanted to play it with his friends.

“I remember saying to his mum, ‘what will Liverpool say?’ and she said ‘don’t you worry about Liverpool, I’ll tell them he has a bit of coursework to be finished up and he’s going over to them full-time in June anyway – whatever Conor decides, that’s it.’

“So that was that, and I don’t think anyone who’s ever gone through our school would have done what he did.”

He continued, “I kept him on the bench for the final as he wasn’t available for the semi-final, but we were under pressure at half-time so I brought him on at his usual spot at right-half forward.

“Within about two minutes of the second-half he’d collected a ball from Conor McGillion, carried the ball and with the Cavan defenders closing in, played it back to McGillion and the ball was in the net.

“That broke the back of Cavan, I remember Oisin Gormley getting another goal and we won by a point while Seanie O’Donnell got man of the match that day, he scored five points.

“It was our first time beating that Cavan side in three years and the wee man [Bradley] played a big part in that.”

The path to stardom is littered with potential pitfalls, especially for young men in the clutches of early adulthood, but Bradley’s discipline has never wavered. Signing for Liverpool was one thing – making it quite another.

“When Conor went over to Liverpool, he stayed with a foster family like all those young lads, but when they turn 18 they go and get an apartment together and then of course the parties start.

“It’s a looser way of life and a lot of boys end up released from Liverpool within 12 months.

“Conor was aware that this happens and learnt that lesson in advance, when he turned 18 he got an apartment of his own.

“His full focus is on the football and always has been.”


CONOR Bradley makes regular trips back home and they think the world of him at his local GAA club, Aghyaran St Davog’s.

One of his former coaches, Anthony Devine, describes him as an “outstanding player” tailor-made for Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

Devine said, “It’s no surprise to me that he was Player of the Year last year at Bolton, and you can see why Klopp’s mad about him. What he does with Liverpool, he used to do with Aghyaran all the time. He brings that manic energy all the time and he makes other players better.

“He was an outstanding player for us and a great lad. One of the things that stands out for me, is that there were never any issues with discipline.

“If he was blown for overcarrying in training he’d put the ball down and get back to his position, and he never mouthed at referees or anything like that.

“From an early age he was a marked man, all the best opposition players were picking him up, teams did what they could to stop him but Conor never worried about things like that, he just got on with it.”

Bradley’s uncles Kevin and Patrick were renowned footballers for Aghyaran in their day while his mother Linda was an excellent cross-country runner. From early on, it was apparent that young Conor was a star in the making.

“I started coaching Conor around 2009 with the U8s and already everyone was talking about him. He was at the core of most of our underage teams and usually played above his actual age group a lot of the time. He was a great lad to coach, he never knew when he was beaten, and if you’d have asked him to go in goals, he’d have done it, he was just that type of lad.”

Even when Liverpool came knocking, Bradley didn’t take a step back with his underage football with Aghyaran. Indeed, it was positively encouraged by the scouts.

“If my memory serves me correctly, Liverpool came to scout him at a game in Loughmacrory when he was U14. They were delighted with how it went, they didn’t know much about GAA but it was a great game of football. They’d looked at him playing soccer but they kept on encouraging him to play for us as long as he could. They never said ‘don’t play for Aghyaran’, they wanted to see him develop at other things.”

Just the other week, Bradley made a flying visit back home. He was spotted on the sidelines supporting his boyhood soccer club St Pat’s Castlederg and whatever the future has in store, it’s safe to say that Bradley won’t forget about where he came from and the people who helped shape him into someone who can hold their own against the very best players in world football.

Devine remarked, “I managed our reserves team last year and we were up in Tattyreagh. We were having a team-talk in the middle of the field, and who lands over into the middle of it, Conor Bradley.

“He knows those boys well, he played alongside a lot of them, and that’s just Conor, no-one has a bad word to say about him and we’re just so proud of him.”

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