Group stage endeavours with a League of Ireland club can be a ticket to another level for a manager. Michael O’Neill and Stephen Kenny are walking proof of that.
But while Stephen Bradley has ambitions to go far in the game and admits that he previously possessed a singular focus that made him hard to live with, there are layers to this summer story that go beyond football.
When he says this isn’t about him, he really means it. In a Budapest hotel yesterday afternoon, the Shamrock Rovers boss opened up on the bittersweet irony of the success that might just put him on the map professionally overlapping with a personal struggle that no parent should have to face.
In June, Bradley’s eight-year-old son Josh was diagnosed with leukemia. Bradley had just turned down the chance to manage Lincoln and was focused on bringing the Hoops to group stage football in the months ahead.
All of that was put in perspective by a crisis that led him to contemplate quitting his job.
“I’m so f**king lucky to have the wife (Emma) I have and the family that allow me to be here and to do this,” said the 37-year-old, with blunt honesty.
“If she had said to me at the time, it’s time to walk away, I would have done it in a heartbeat. But my wife and Josh were like, this is what they want me to do.”
With the passing of time, it’s easier to talk.
In the course of a lengthy chat on the eve of this Europa League play-off with Ferencvaros, Bradley fielded questions on the trivialities of important football business which would lead the Rovers news agenda on another day.
Would it really be that bad if they fell short in this tie and ended up in the Europa Conference League? Would he prefer to play games in the Aviva Stadium or Tallaght? Will Aidomo Emakhu and Andy Lyons be sold?
But the real emotion came in describing the phone call home after the victory in North Macedonia last week that guaranteed Rovers a crack at a group stage.
“The staff’s families all watched the game together,” he explained, “Stephen (McPhail – sporting director), Glenn (Cronin – his assistant). It was brilliant being able to FaceTime them on the pitch afterwards and Josh was jumping around with them. Two months ago, that was the furthest thing from my mind, whereas now I see progress. He’s getting on with his treatment and he is doing okay.
“That is genuinely why I do it and why I love it – because it brings that sort of joy not only to my family but also to Josh. If it gives him a split second of forgetting about what he is going through then, for me, it is worth everything.”
It was a discussion about Bradley’s ambitions which led him down that road. He has made no secret of his hopes to graduate to a higher level, yet the Lincoln decision showed that he was ready to do things at his pace. “I’m 37, not 57” he stressed.
“Whatever will be, will be. I could be managing Jobstown next year and I’m quite comfortable with it. I know I’m lucky in what I do, the job I have so, yeah, let’s see where my life takes me. Two months ago, you’re going along in a bubble and next thing you find out your son has cancer ... it changes,” he says, snapping his fingers to illustrate the point.
It’s put to him that he hadn’t used the C word before.
“It was hard for me to process that because my mam died from cancer,” he replies, “So it was hard for me to say those words.”
His mother, Bernadette, passed away in 2016 aged just 58. She was a single parent when she negotiated her son’s contracts with Arsenal at the formative stages of his football career when he was a highly sought-after teen prodigy. He has spoken of his regret that she didn’t get to see him succeed in the coaching sphere.
The Dubliner is not always an open book when it comes to his emotions. His friend Graham Gartland last week described how Bradley has always been quite guarded in nature.
However, the outpouring of support for Josh both inside and outside the club clearly struck a chord.
“It gives you a reality check and it helps you in terms of, if we lose we lose. Four or five years ago you wouldn’t have been able to talk to me for two weeks,” he grins.
“I’d be f**king out running on the roads at three or four in the morning. I’d say my dog hated me. Here we go again! Or else I’d be watching the game over and over again to a point where it wasn’t healthy, because you’re not sleeping. You can’t change it.
“Obviously you can learn from it. You watch it, you understand it and you move on. Then you go home and you see Josh and obviously my other kids, and you realise, this is what’s important. It’s great.”
Bradley says the bond within his Rovers group was strengthened by the staff and player response to his very brief leave of absence in June; he was unavailable for an away defeat in Dundalk but learned of meetings, which took place when he was off, where players and backroom set about taking responsibility for staying on course.
“I’ve said before – win, lose or draw, they are a special group of people, a special group of men,” he asserted.
What about the business in Hungary?
The merits of a win, loss or draw have been debated in the preliminaries and the unavailability of six players through a combination of injury, illness and suspension has weakened Bradley’s hand. Emakhu is out, but Bradley confirmed that the striker and wing-back Lyons would be going nowhere this window with UK bids rejected.
He notes a sense of ‘calm’ around the group because there’s a different pressure compared to this time 12 months ago where a humbling defeat to Flora Tallinn cost them the group-stage dream. From a rung up the ladder, the view is different and hypothetical debates are complex.
The glamour of a possible tie with the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal, Lazio or Roma awaits the winners and the up front financial rewards would be greater, yet there’s a strong possibility UEFA would demand a move to the Aviva Stadium that neither Bradley nor his players want.
After this year, he will never need reminding that home is where the heart is.
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