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Michael Walker: Wembley a fitting stage for the exciting Bradley’s talents

Seasoned observers at Liverpool can scarcely believe the impact the Tyrone native has had since he graduated to the first team

There was a moment midway through the first half of Liverpool’s match at Brentford last Saturday lunchtime when Conor Bradley stood in the middle of Brentford’s half and played a few passes in a series of keep-ball touches that maintained Liverpool’s control. He did so with such ease, it made you shift in your chair.

Here was a 20-year-old full-back who started his first Premier League game a month ago directing traffic for a side who may go on to be champions.

Bradley soon decamped to his right-back starting position, but he would intermittently return to midfield throughout his 83 minutes and he never looked anything other than assured.

Forward to Wednesday night at Anfield and with the league leaders 1-0 down to Chiedozie Ogbene’s smart header for Luton, Bradley was a prominent part of a second-half comeback that Jurgen Klopp called a “thunderstorm”. Bradley was taken off, protectively by Klopp, with Liverpool 2-1 up and received a standing ovation from a crowd who can scarcely believe what they are seeing from the young Irishman.


The substitution means Bradley is yet to complete a Premier League 90 minutes, which tells us something about how young he is and how keen Liverpool are to care for him following the stress fracture in his back that delayed his 2023-24 by four months. Given the death of Bradley’s father Joe earlier this month, everything about his son this season has been impressive.

It makes you think Conor Bradley could be exceptional. In a way, he is. Not many professional footballers come from somewhere as rural as Aghyaran outside Castlederg, 10 minutes from the border with Donegal. From Co Tyrone he has been launched into the most high-profile league on the planet; the scenery of the Sperrin mountains has been swapped for the tight streets of Liverpool 4.

And on Sunday his surroundings will change again – it’s Wembley Stadium for the League Cup final against Chelsea.

Bradley has been there before, and recently. Last season while on loan at Bolton Wanderers, he was an invigorating part of a team that won the EFL Trophy. The final was against Plymouth Argyle and the depth of football’s significance to historic clubs such as these, then in League One, was shown by an attendance touching 80,000. It was a major occasion, potentially unnerving for a 19-year-old, but Bradley took it in his galloping stride. Whatever happens on Sunday, he has a Wembley victory on his CV.

“I was at it,” says Michael O’Neill, Bradley’s manager with Northern Ireland. “Bolton were brilliant that day against Plymouth.

“I was watching Conor, Dion Charles and Eoin Toal. Conor was terrific in the final – actually, they all were. Eoin was over less than a year from Derry City but he played like he’d been in England for years. Dion scored. Nearly 80,000 at it, great day.”

The previous fortnight Bradley had played two full 90 minutes of international football against San Marino and Finland, two of 61 appearances in total between June 2022 and June 2023. Considering his natural dynamism and that he is still developing physically, the stress fracture may have been his body telling him to slow down.

O’Neill, who will hope to name Bradley in his squad for the friendlies against Romania and Scotland next month, thinks of the difference between last year and this in a 20-year-old he first saw at 14 in the ‘Club NI’ programme established by Jim Magilton and himself a decade ago, during O’Neill’s first period in charge.

“It’ll be a year in March since I first picked Conor and there’s a big difference in him in that year,” O’Neill says. “He’d had a good six months at Bolton. But then he was out and he looks more developed in his body now. That’s natural, but there’s also work involved.

“He wouldn’t have had the chance to do that work at Bolton, because they were playing week-in, week out in League One.”

O’Neill is unsurprised by the dedication required to get to where Bradley is going or the professionalism of Liverpool’s guidance. A level-headed young footballer without an agent, O’Neill says “there were always high hopes for Conor because he was always very focused, easy to manage”.

There was a lot of travelling for his family, to Cookstown and Jordanstown for Club NI gatherings and to Belfast – in the shadow of Stormont – for the Liverpool camp organised by Stefan Seaton and Cliff Ferguson in a city where Manchester United have traditionally been all-powerful.

O’Neill also praises Joe McAree at Dungannon Swifts where Bradley, a Liverpool supporter, graduated to senior football. He was not a right-back then, he was a left-sided attacker who cut in onto his right foot. It means the sight of him in midfield at Brentford will not have shocked those who knew him then.

As O’Neill says: “Joe McAree said to me: ‘Michael, you need to start thinking about playing Conor in midfield’. He’s only played three games for me – Ian [Baraclough] gave him his debut – he’s been injured the other seven. Give me a chance! Joe would stand by that now.”

Northern Ireland had a hugely disappointing Euro 2024 qualifying campaign with O’Neill back in charge. But they finished it with an uplifting 2-0 win over Denmark with a young XI missing Bradley but featuring some of those who have come through the Club NI programme. Its aim was to get the best young talent in Northern Ireland to train with and against each other and to form a bond.

“We didn’t have a lot of money, but we tried to restructure,” O’Neill says. “Jim [Magilton] did a huge amount of work – it’s easy putting something down on paper, but you’ve to get it from paper to grass and Jim drove that.

“We hoped it would build a loyalty with the players and it has. Not all, some have left, one or two have opted to pay their underage football with the Republic of Ireland. But I do think the ones who have stayed have benefited more, because they’re a group and when they go away with the senior team they’re all together. They play pool and darts together. They have since they were 13, 14.

“And they’re from both sides of the community. The big thing I think is they enjoy being with each other – that’s what international football is about. If you judge it just on turning up and whether you play or win, yeah that’s fine, but you have to feel part of something regardless of whether you’re selected or not. And I think those lads do.”

The reference to the Republic of Ireland is pertinent as there have been grumbles that Bradley, pictured as a boy wearing the FAI kit, was not picked up by the association.

The foresight and hard work of Magilton, O’Neill and others means otherwise. And there are more to come. O’Neill is wary, extremely, of getting ahead of things, but maybe eight of his next squad could play for the under-21s and below them are two 15-year-olds and a 16-year-old going to Arsenal, Chelsea and Everton this summer.

As with Evan Ferguson, it is necessary to bite your anticipation about them and Conor Bradley. But as with Ferguson, when you witness Bradley exciting Liverpool – at 20 – you feel it.