Players going to the UK can't handle the mental side of training every day - Stephen Bradley
Part two of our special series about players to have experienced the whirlwind of football, the highs and lows, and where their career eventually took them, inside or outside of the game.
As the turn of the millennium arrived in 2000, it was natural for predictions to emerge of key figures to shape Ireland’s direction in the decades ahead.
Budding actor Colin Farrell was earmarked for greatness in the arts, global stardom of a particular kind beckoned for Westlife, while Stephen Bradley featured prominently in the sporting sphere of that crystal ball.
By then, the Tallaght teen had dined out in Dublin as a guest of Alex Ferguson. Rather than be wooed by the Scot, Bradley gravitated more to Arsene Wenger’s pitch and was soon being interviewed live on national radio by Pat Kenny after news of his impending move to Arsenal broke in the first week of January.
The 15-year-old’s profile rocketed from schoolboy football supplements to the back pages and, finally, front pages of newspapers virtually overnight. That he lived around the corner from Robbie Keane glistened the story further.
For all the attempts at that time to downplay the sizeable six-figure package guaranteed to Bradley during his apprenticeship in London, it was that very income which ultimately extricated from him the desire to prosper at Arsenal.
Too much, too soon is the phrase Bradley applies to the material trappings bestowed on him during his late teens but equally so the transition to working within a professional environment.
A big fish he certainly was playing for Lourdes Celtic but amongst the South Americans, Spanish, French and Germans that Bradley joined on the first day of training at Arsenal he wasn’t. All were cherry-picked and pursued by the club’s global scouting network. Unlike his peers, however, Bradley was unprepared for what lay ahead.
Speaking now as a 30-year-old retired from playing, Ireland’s next big thing back then admitted the changeover from having scant money nor time to a situation whereby he ended up with bucketloads of both in London ranked as a culture shock beyond anything his emigration posed.
Bradley spent four years at Arsenal, captaining the reserves along the way, and making plenty of friends amongst the playing and coaching staff he remains close with to this day.
His time at Arsenal wasn’t the problem; it was the phases before and after which led him into depression and the necessity to seek professional help.
Bradley’s mental scars had been compounded by the physical variety from a stab wound sustained during an aggravated burglary during the latter months of his residency in London.
Sinking lower into himself on his return to Dublin, a call from his mentor at Arsenal curbed the descent.
“It was Liam Brady on the phone,” explained Bradley. “He told me to get myself together and look for something new. That’s what I needed because I wasn’t feeling well then.”
Since Bradley first spoke in November of the condition that beset him – namely, coping with rejection – other players have made contact to approve his tackling of one of Irish football’s taboos.
He said: “Players are afraid to talk about coming back from the UK because they consider it failure. I was advised to tell my story because it could help the current generation who are in the same position and don’t know where to turn.
“I don’t pretend to be counsellor but I’ve sat down with a couple of players in recent weeks and have some more to meet soon. They got in touch me and I’m happy to help.
“In my case, the problem was being unable to manage my money but there’s so many different factors that affect youngsters.
“There is no system in Ireland that prepares youngsters for professional football or deals with the problems arising when they are released.
“Firstly, players still move to UK clubs with no guidance on what to expect. Like myself, they switch from training a couple of times per week to doing it every day. Ability-wise, we can handle it but the mental side is the issue.
“There was a few of us Irish at the Arsenal academy when a lad named Moritz Volz was a team-mate. He had joined from Germany (Schalke 04), so that professional preparation had taught him to rest after training sessions.
“While we’d be heading into London for the afternoon, he’d cycle home and get into bed. We nicknamed him “Mad Moritz” but he went on to play several Premier League seasons at Fulham. It was only afterwards that I realised he had the right idea.”
*Stephen Bradley currently works for Arsenal as their Irish scout as well as being a coach with Shamrock Rovers.
Read part one of our special series here: From being touted as next Roy Keane to overweight allegations and the League of Ireland scrapheap - the Michael Keane story