Conor Bradley early days at Omagh CBS

January 20, 2024

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

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.

His former CBS 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 u-14s 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 them 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.”

By Niall Gartland – 24 January 2024