Tuesday 17 July 2018

Bradley goes forward to the beginning

The Shamrock Rovers manager has seen both the good and bad sides of this funny old game

Stephen Bradley: ‘I know it’s not personal. I haven’t done anything to any of them personally, it’s the position I’m in and you have accept that.’ Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Stephen Bradley: ‘I know it’s not personal. I haven’t done anything to any of them personally, it’s the position I’m in and you have accept that.’ Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Marie Crowe

Marie Crowe

When Stephen Bradley talks about his childhood he doesn't just reminisce, he relives it. The Shamrock Rovers manager looks wistful as he recalls the days in Jobstown when all that mattered was football.

It was the early 1990s and times were tough. There was just Bradley, his mother and his two brothers. She did everything for them and they had a great life. Children were still free to roam and explore, there was a trust in each other and the environment.

They could leave in the morning, disappear for the day and no one would worry. Bradley and his friends did just that. There were no computer games, no televisions with endless channels, instead life revolved around football.

Every morning Bradley left with his boots and a ball, he went from school to the streets, playing football every chance that he could. If he wasn't playing on the streets he was playing matches, sometimes up to three or four a day for teams well above his age bracket. He didn't have much but he didn't know any different. Life was simple but it was good.

"If I ever wanted a new pair of boots my mother would work even harder than she already was to get them for me," Bradley says. "That was once a year, not like now when kids are getting a new pair every week. I was happy with that because I knew no different.

"I really enjoyed where I grew up and how I grew up, it really shaped me as a person and I wouldn't change it. When I'd come home after a day of games my mother would ask me who did I play for today and how many games did I play. There was no restrictions, no pressure, just a lot of trust. I loved it.

"Now kids are inside a lot playing video games; when you see a kid now and they show potential as a footballer or show personality when they talk to you it's probably a reflection on how they are being brought up. They are out, meeting people, experiencing the good and the bad, finding out what they like and dislike."

Bradley was just 10 when clubs from England and further afield started to take notice of his talent. After one of his games a scout from Chelsea invited him to London, and that was the beginning of his journey towards professional football.

"I went on a plane to London on my own without even meeting anyone from the club. Back then you could fly on your own if you wore a special vest. I didn't know where I was going and I stayed with people I'd never met. When I think back it was crazy. We went to a tournament in Holland and I got player of the tournament.

"As soon as I came home they tried to move me over; they offered to move my family too. We obviously didn't take it up but from then I was away with teams on trials at least three weekends out of every month."

For four years Bradley went over and back to England, visiting different clubs. It eventually started to take its toll and he felt he was missing out on being a kid and having a normal life like his friends.

"My mam decided to put a stop to it and once we told the clubs we were stopping we had 20 contracts in front of us and we had a decision to make. It got a bit hectic. Everyone was offering contracts, first-team managers wanted to meet - the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Man City, Everton, Celtic, Rangers. All the big clubs. The managers were ringing the house, it's strange thinking back to my mam answering to people like Gerard Houllier, Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger."

Bradley had really enjoyed the time he'd spent on trial at Arsenal. Liam Brady was there so there was an Irish connection and so was Graham Barrett, who he clicked with. So he chose the Gunners, signed at 14 and then made the move at 15. There was no agent involved, his mother did the negotiating.

She passed away two years ago, they were very close and it hit him hard.

He moved into digs in High Barnett in London, sharing the house with Barrett, Sebastian Larsson, Moritz Volz and Stephen O'Donnell. The experience was mostly positive for Bradley, he had some tough nights with homesickness but the family looked after him well and he had a good bond with the other players in the house.

The first two and half years went really well, and he was training with the Arsenal first team and the manager really liked him. The teenager was making good progress but when he signed professional at 17 everything unravelled quickly.

"It was the beginning of my downfall, I had more money than I could ever imagine in my bank account and I didn't know how to deal with it. I was never educated in how to look after that type of finances. I could buy my own house and car at 17 for cash. I was buying watches that were more expensive than people's cars. I didn't value money because I had never had it.

"What got me the money was how hard I worked and how good I was. I lost my passion and hunger to keep improving, I thought I'd made it because I had X amount of money in the bank at 17.

"I stood still, then went backwards and got overtaken. I lost my love for the game and it was because of the financial aspect. Every time I break it down and look at it, it comes down to that."

As Bradley was struggling to deal with his new circumstances, life dealt him a cruel blow. He was attacked and stabbed in his home in London and that put him out of football for a year and altered the course of his life.

"I was spending a lot of money on stupid things and the wrong people noticed it and followed me home after a meal. They broke into my house, put a gun to my head, stabbed me in the head and broke my ribs. They nearly killed me. The doctors said when they pierced my skull they were a millimetre away from piercing my brain."

It was a traumatic experience and one that Bradley thought he was dealing with by not talking about it. But the damage was much deeper than the wounds his attackers left.

Around that time he had agreed a move to Fulham. Cesc Fabregas had joined Arsenal and the manager informed him that he couldn't see a path for him at Arsenal anymore. But the attack ended his transfer and for medical reasons he couldn't be involved in contact football for a year. So he moved back to Jobstown with his mam. The young footballer was far away from the professional set-up at Arsenal and it didn't take him long to fall into a routine of drinking and not living his life the way he should. Those around him tried to help but they couldn't get through.

Then Wenger and Brady persuaded him to get back on track so he went to Dunfermline for a few months but hated it and came home again. Bradley wanted to fight the world but he wasn't getting anywhere.

"I bottled it all up. I needed to talk to someone but as a young man I didn't know how to. I saw it as a weakness and I think a lot of young men in Ireland feel like that. I was in the bracket of a young man not wanting to talk to people. I was thinking 'you are too strong for that'. My mother and my now wife told me I wasn't a good person and I listened to them because they know me inside out. I learned I had to speak to someone to deal with what happened to me and that helped me process the football side too.

"It helps me in what I do now, if we have a bad result or negativity I can deal with it. I've come through a lot. I've lost my mother, who meant the world to me, and I should have been a better footballer than I was. What's worse that can happen to me now as a football manager?"

Bradley found out about the challenges of life the hard way; he knows how difficult the world of professional football can be. But he's learned lessons from those experiences and regularly gives advice to players who are contemplating a move to the UK and also those who are thinking about coming home.

"I have players ringing me a lot who are going away. If I can help one of those players live their life differently than I did when I was young then it's worth it.

"We send our young players to England and then blame England for the failure of our players, we need to take control of it. You go there and all the clubs have psychologists, but there is no trust there. I'm a kid from Tallaght, I'm not going to speak to a man I've never met in my life.

"We need people from home who we can build a relationship with before we go and meet them once a month to talk to them. We need to stop blaming people and see how we can try to make it better. The mental side of it is huge. We are so ill-prepared to go to England it's frightening.

"We can match them for physicality, ability, desire, will, heart and all that, but that's just 20 per cent of the battle. The rest is how you live your life, how you deal with knock-backs, how you deal with praise, all those elements.

"This should all be in place for a young lad before they go to England. As a nation, we are starting to take responsibility and I think the National League will help. It's easy to go after the FAI, they are our governing body, but why, as clubs and parents, can't we put something in place, processes to help our young players? I think the trick we are missing is that we are focusing on the player, not the person. We have going away parties for people, we never have coming home parties."

Bradley went on to have a career in the League of Ireland and also a stint in Falkirk, but ultimately he never fulfilled his potential as a player. But from early on he had decided he wanted a career in management so he was largely focused on that. At 27 he retired from playing and went straight into coaching.

Along with Shane Robinson, Bradley set up the Shamrock Rovers Academy, he also started coaching the club's under 19s. He then moved into the first team as an assistant coach under Pat Fenlon and into the head coach role two years ago at 31.

"I love it, it's probably the best decision I ever made. There is pressure but I love that part of it. The big thing for me is improving the squad and to see something building."

However, it hasn't been plain sailing at the Dublin club, who have had a rocky first half of the season.

"You have to decide which way you want to go with your group, whether you want to sign a lot of experienced players and win the league for one or two years and be happy with that, or do you want to build a young squad that excites people, challenges and can have sustained success.

"If you want to build a club, if you want to do that, you have to accept mistakes and inconsistencies, and I do. What we need to do is add the right older players at the right time in the right positions, but we won't add them just to add them. We will do it for the right reasons. We have to work hard to get our football club up with the best, we can't just say it. We have to back it up and we will.

"If I felt we weren't progressing I'd shake the hands of the board members and walk away tomorrow. We will be successful, people can say what they want. It looks like we are a million miles away but we are not."

Earlier this month, fans displayed a banner at Tallaght Stadium calling for a change of manager after a 5-2 loss to Dundalk. He doesn't take it personally but he does get annoyed when it affects his family. "My little boy was at the game a few weeks ago and I got a lot of stick and he was hurt and I had to sit down and explain to him that this is football and it's Daddy's job. I know it's not personal, I haven't done anything to any of them personally, it's the position I'm in and you have accept that. If you can't handle it, you shouldn't be in the role. I believe I'm good at it. I know we will be successful. I trust in what we are doing, in the process. We will work hard to be successful.

"We are easy targets because we are a young coaching team, I don't know how many times in interviews I've been asked about my age or inexperience. I can't change my age. We are a good coaching team and we challenge each other."

Bradley's ambition is to manage at the highest level he possibly can. He's had dreams before that didn't work out, this time he's learned to do things another way. It feels like the beginning.

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