Monday 24 July 2017

Bradley happy to find own route through Ulster gridlock

Mark Bradley started dreaming of playing for Tyrone around the time Peter Canavan was lifting the first Sam Maguire for the county. Photo: Sportsfile
Mark Bradley started dreaming of playing for Tyrone around the time Peter Canavan was lifting the first Sam Maguire for the county. Photo: Sportsfile

Declan Bogue

Standing under the spotlights in Bundoran's Great Northern Hotel last October, Tyrone forward Mark Bradley found himself under the utmost of scrutiny and pressure.

Attending the annual Teamtalk Mag All-Star Awards night, he had been up on stage along with his Killyclogher clubmates acknowledging their county championship win. Just as they were heading back to their seats, the event host, oh, just Peter Canavan seeing as you're asking, said, "You stay behind, Mark Bradley."

In the county final against Coalisland, Bradley was on fire. During a break in play, he flicked ball up with his heel against his standing foot like Maradona. The crowd purred.

A stylist like Canavan spotted it. Now, here in front of 600 Tyrone Gaels all in tuxedos and ball gowns, he asked Bradley to repeat it, a fresh O'Neill's football magically appearing on stage.

Bradley did it first time. Then he tossed the ball to Canavan.

Your turn.

Canavan did it, and tossed the ball behind him.

"Not much to that Mark," he said to the room and laughter erupted.

It's funny. Certain pundits look at this Tyrone team and make the observation that they don't have a 'marquee' forward as if it's some revelation. The same thing is said of Mayo, despite having the top scorer for three consecutive championships in Cillian O'Connor.

Struggled

The one name constantly brought up is Canavan, but Canavan is the type of talent a county only has once in a generation.

What cannot be denied is that they have struggled to find someone who could prove a constant threat in the full-forward line. A few Great White Hopes have come and gone, such as Kyle Coney.

For a few years they played Stevie O'Neill in there although most of his good work was always done further out the field. The same for Seán Cavanagh who has never truly convinced with his back to the goal.

The current man entrusted with spreading panic in the opposition backline is Bradley, who was only becoming aware of Gaelic football at a time Canavan was lifting the first Sam Maguire for Tyrone.

"When you are growing up, it's all you want to do is play for Tyrone. You go out when you're younger with a ball and try and mimic the likes of Peter Canavan and what they did," reveals Bradley, a teacher who went to St Mary's, just like his idol.

"Now to be involved in that, is great. At times you could take it for granted but when you go out and play the likes of Donegal in Clones it makes the training all the year around worthwhile."

That gripe that there is nobody like Canavan any more deserves teasing out. Even if there was a Canavan in the modern game, how would he cope with the prevailing defensive systems?

Asked about Lee Brennan's haul of 3-14 in a club game for Trillick at the Ulster Championship launch and his chances of earning a starting spot on the back of it, Tyrone manager Mickey Harte made the point: "In any environment it is big scoring, but you can't just say that that will lift direct into county football against a team that is very well set-up defensively. Those chances just don't appear.

"You don't get 17 shots at the goal, as he scored 17. To score 17 times in one game is just phenomenal but you just won't get that in inter-county level, even against the team that are not as defensively minded as others are."

Asked if he would have liked to have played in a different era, Bradley shows the characteristics of a realist.

"It's not 1990 anymore where you had football with loads of room in the forward line. Donegal will be the same in that they will be well set up and drilled to defend and be really hard to break down. I think that is the way most teams are now."

He rejects the theory that because attackers such as he are not getting as much chance to express themselves, the game suffers as a result.

"Back in that day too I'm sure the matches weren't always great. It's not as if every game was amazing, full of free-flowing football. It is highlighted more nowadays about how defensive it has got but it was the same then as well."

So, he just gets on with it. Standing at 5' 7", he is a target for backs that know the value of acting the bully.

In a radio conversation with Matt Cooper last week over the Diarmuid Connolly suspension, Cooper made the point to Canavan that he was roughed up in his playing days.

However, Canavan has never been one to polish his halo and made the point that he had to handle himself too.

Bradley displayed those qualities in the league against Dublin when he received a straight red card for standing up for himself against Jonny Cooper.

Where a player of that stature in the past might have benefited from getting across the ground quicker, Bradley insists that potential advantage has been narrowed.

"If you are marking a man who is six foot he is nearly as quick now because of the conditioning work teams put in. It's crazy. You'd think the smaller you are the easier it would be to get away but it's getting harder and harder."

Tomorrow, Tyrone may take the lessons of Ballybofey, where CJ McGourty got plenty of change out of Neil McGee with the Donegal defence more open than we have seen in recent years.

Tonight you will find him in the usual pre-match spot: a wee scrap of a basketball court off the Drumnakilly Road, beside the swings and the slides, along with his club and county team-mates, Conall and Tiernan McCann.

"We go and shoot a few hoops, just chill out and not get too worked up.

"Though obviously when you run out onto a pitch in front of thousands of fans you do get nerves of some sort."

The good sort.

Irish Independent

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