Conor Bradley: How Liverpool’s new superstar was forged by Gaelic football and athletics – The Athletic

By Andy JonesMar 15, 2024

An under-14 Gaelic football match is not the place you would expect to see two Liverpool scouts.

The game was Aghyaran St Davog’s versus Loughmacrory’s St Teresa’s on a remote slice of countryside in Northern Ireland, a few miles from the border with the Republic. In the middle of this humble sporting arena in County Tyrone, a future superstar was excelling.

His name was Conor Bradley.

The Liverpool right-back has been one of the breakthrough stars of the season, going from a youngster on the fringe of Jurgen Klopp’s first-team squad to his starting right-back. On Sunday, he is likely to line up against Manchester United as his club continue their pursuit of an unprecedented quadruple of major trophies.

Bradley’s true passion has always been football, but before he moved to Merseyside aged 16, he was a multifaceted sporting star and the skills he learnt playing GAA for Aghyaran and running for athletics club Finn Valley alongside football are just as evident.

Bradley has emerged as one of Liverpool’s most promising players (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

“Liverpool were happy for him to play Gaelic when he was younger,” says Anthony Devine, who coached Bradley from under-eights to under-14s at Aghyaran.

“You have to be fit, fast and tough to play – look at what he did to (Chelsea and England defender) Ben Chilwell in the Carabao Cup final. They are transferable attributes, so they encouraged him to play out the season with us.”

This is the story of how Bradley’s unusual sporting background set up his dizzying rise and the pride of the community he left behind.

Leave Bradley’s childhood home just outside the small village of Killen and drive west for 10 minutes past fields of sheep, Tyrone’s gently rolling hills and over the inky waters of the River Derg, and you reach Aghyaran GAA Club.

It is a journey Conor Bradley took twice a week for most of his young life – once for a midweek training session and then again for a match on Sundays — and all while playing with Liverpool’s academy outpost in Belfast from the age of nine.

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Amid the pleasant scenery, Aghyaran GAC — with its smart green and white-painted clubhouse, three pitches and small concrete grandstand — feels slightly incongruous. There is one ‘main pitch’ — named the Michael Dolan Memorial Park after one of their former players — where the senior teams play home games. Up a gently sloping gravel path is the second pitch, known as the training pitch, where underage teams would play their smaller-sided matches, and where Bradley’s career began.

Gaelic football is a mixture of football and rugby. It consists of 15 players on each team and is played with a round ball that can be caught, kicked and passed by hand. The aim is to score through rugby-style goalposts; if the ball passes above the crossbar, the scorer’s team receives one point; if it goes into the net underneath, they get three.

Bradley, who joined Aghyaran aged five, played predominantly as a midfielder.

“He was an exceptional talent,” says Devine. “He had natural energy and athleticism. He never cared what opposition he was playing against, he just went out and played.

“You see it now at Liverpool, he brings an energy and that’s what he did for us. He would never stop and that set the example for his team-mates to follow. If you had Conor, you knew you had a chance.”

As you enter the foyer of Aghyaran’s clubhouse, hanging by the stairs is a picture of Bradley. It was taken during his final game for the club – a match he was not even supposed to play in.

Aghyaran are proud of Conor Bradley’s rise to fame (Andrew Jones/The Athletic)

It was an under-16 cup final in 2019, by which time Bradley had left behind Gaelic football and Aghyaran due to his involvement with Liverpool. Yet still he came along to the game against Drumragh 20 miles down the road in Trillick — and not just to support his old team-mates. Bradley was desperate to play and had brought his kit along on the off chance he could persuade coaches Kevin Moss and Kevin McMenamin to let him come off the bench. They relented, although not even Bradley could not prevent Aghyaran from losing by six points.

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Bradley’s ferocious determination has always been evident to those who have shaped his journey. Gary McHugh, who coached Bradley alongside Devine at under-13 and under-14 level, remembers one of the first times he met him at an under-8 tournament, played in filthy weather.

“All the kids were blue with the cold,” McHugh says. “Youngsters were crying because they didn’t want to be there, but there was Conor, ready to play. Even at that age, there was a mentality there.

“One of the key things he had was coachability. When chatting to a group of young lads, some would be messing about and not paying attention, but Conor would be listening, taking in every word.”

Quickly, Bradley earned a reputation as one of Tyrone’s most promising young footballers — and not just for Aghyaran. While playing an under-13 match for his school, Omagh Christian Brothers Grammar, his side found themselves eight points down with five minutes remaining. A lost cause? Not for Bradley, who scored a hat-trick of three-point goals to win the match.

At the back of the Aghyaran clubhouse are the dressing rooms where Bradley listened to, and gave, many team-talks. “He led through his actions mainly, but if he had to speak he would and everybody would listen,” says Devine.

Aghyaran under-10s, with Conor Bradley circled (Andrew Jones/The Athletic)

It is a view shared by those who played alongside him.

“He was the standout player,” says former team-mate Alex Dolan. “It was, ‘Give the ball to Conor and start clapping’. He was good craic in the dressing room, everyone wanted to listen to him because he was the best player. Anything he was doing you wanted to learn it, too. He was just a normal lad, not cocky at all.”

Another former team-mate, Cormac Devine, agrees. “He was that quick he’d pick the ball up in defence and run the length of the pitch and score without anyone laying a glove on him. It was all business with him. He always wanted to win, even in training. He’d take on any challenge even if the guy he was marking was twice his height.”

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Throughout his time at the club, his parents were extremely supportive of Bradley and the club — the family’s car dealership business, Derg Commercials, even sponsored Aghyaran’s kit — but as his soccer commitments increased, his chances to keep playing Gaelic football dwindled.

McHugh, who was involved in the County Tyrone setup, remembers telling anyone who would listen that he had a “cracker” coming through who could make the county’s development squads, but Liverpool did not want him to play at the higher level.

GO DEEPER

Conor Bradley: The 17-year-old on the cusp of Liverpool’s first team

Bradley skipped a year in school, completing his GCSE exams (normally taken by children at the age of 16) a year early before moving to Liverpool. He would regularly go away with Liverpool to tournaments, but he missed one held in Bulgaria as the lure of a Gaelic football cup final for Omagh proved too strong.

With Liverpool believing he had to miss the Bulgarian tournament because of a school coursework deadline, Bradley came on at half-time for Omagh against St Patrick’s Cavan and scored a goal to help his team win by one point.

During the off-season last summer, when Bradley returned to Ireland, he spent most of his days at Aghyaran kicking balls about. He remains friends with some of those who have progressed into the senior team and, to his old coaches, he was still the same old Conor.

Left to right: Cormac Devine and Alex Dolan (Bradley’s team-mates) and coaches Gary McHugh and Anthony Devine (Andrew Jones/The Athletic)

“The second team was playing in Tattyreagh,” says former coach Devine. “A boy with his hood up wandered into the huddle during my half-time team talk. It was Conor. He knew a lot of the boys in that team and I said to him: ‘Can you play the second half?’.

“I got speaking to him after and I remember jokingly asking him whose training is harder, mine or Jurgen Klopp’s? He said mine!”

It is 6:30pm and the Finn Valley Athletics Club is a cacophony of noise. Children and adults of all ages arrive in waves to take part in a variety of activities from athletics to GAA under the piercing floodlights.

It was at Finn Valley in Stranorlar, County Donegal, where Bradley competed in athletics for three years from the age of 10.

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“From the moment he started, Conor was winning,” says Oisin Toye, a former cross-country running team-mate. “You’d think he’d been running and competing for ages, but he hadn’t. He was really competitive and very tough to beat. In the county, he was the person to chase.

“When the race started he almost had these blinkers on, there’s the finish line, let’s get this done — but he was always smiling no matter what.”

Finn Valley AC, Bradley’s old club (Andrew Jones/The Athletic)

Finn Valley AC was founded in 1971 by Patsy McGonagle. He is well-known in athletic circles having managed the Irish athletics team at four Olympic Games, six World Championships and six European Championships.

The club has a host of impressive alumni. The most recent Olympics in Tokyo included former Finn Valley athletes Brendan Boyce, Mark English and Eilish Flanagan. Another, Roisin Flanagan, recently competed in the Indoor World Championships. High jumper Sommer Lecky, another graduate, won a world under-20 silver medal in 2018.

Finn Valley began as a school’s programme for the Donegal-Tyrone border area, hosting events for youngsters, but has mushroomed to have affiliations with more than 80 schools, including St Patrick’s Primary School in Castlederg, which Bradley attended.

“He came down to an event with his school and the minute I saw him, it was obvious he had a great endurance talent. He was a natural, mixing that stamina with speed,” says McGonagle.

Finn Valley holds regular training sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays alongside additional sessions on Sundays. Toye, now 20, was a regular attendee, but Bradley’s intense schedule meant he was rarely at training.

“We didn’t force him to come to training like we might with others,” says McGonagle. “From the start, I realised that nagging him would only drive him away from the sport.”

Bradley (right) with Finlay Valley team-mate Oisin Toye (Finn Valley AC)

Instead of training at Finn Valley, at least once a week, Bradley would hop off the school bus and head over to Physio Fit for a one-hour fitness session with personal trainer Michael Penrose.

Conor’s mother, Linda, contacted Penrose about helping Bradley do extra work. Training routines were aimed at improving his strength, power, agility and movement patterns, but his football obsession was so clear that a ball was usually introduced in the last 15 minutes and occasionally they would take the training session across to Mitchell Park Sports Field.

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“He was brilliant, always wanting to learn and he had a remarkable dedication,” says Penrose, who worked with Bradley for two years. “Parents may ask me to train their child, but the child has to buy in. I would give him some drills and exercises to do at home and he always did that extra work and that focus has taken him to where he is.”

Bradley’s ties with Finn Valley were linked to his mother, who competed for the athletics club in her youth. He regularly competed in races for both club and school.

“Sometimes nobody would know he was coming and he’d arrive 30 minutes before a race, win and then immediately be off to play football,” Toye says. “No chatting, quick photograph and off he went. He was all business.”

The secret behind timing Bradley’s arrival and the start of his race came from McGonagle. He was the starter, so he could rearrange the races to fit into the youngster’s schedule. “We tried to work around him the best we could because he always had a commitment elsewhere,” says McGonagle.

Bradley was soon dominating at the county level but went on to win a title at the Ulster Championships, involving all nine counties of the province, and finish in the top six in the National Championships. “All with no training,” says McGonagle.

“He reminds me of Everton’s Seamus Coleman and boxer Jason Quigley,” adds Chris McNulty, Finn Valley AC’s press officer and a journalist for Donegal Live. “They’re all normal guys who haven’t forgotten their roots.”

For McNulty, Bradley’s work ethic and respect for others are down to his upbringing, in particular his dad, Joe, and mum, Linda. After Joe died in February following a long illness, Father Paul Fraser — who led his funeral service in St Patrick’s Church, next door to Aghyaran GAC — even noted how Conor “shared that drive of his father”.

Bradley (blue vest) being supported by his mother, Linda (background, yellow top) (Finlay Valley AC)

“Conor’s from an area where respect and hard work were drilled into him,” McNulty says. “All of his family are cut from the same cloth. Linda took him everywhere and was very encouraging and supportive. It would have been very difficult with Joe being ill, but there was never an excuse.”

Bradley, who also possessed talent on the track, especially over 600 metres, raced for the club for three years before football commitments grew further. Toye has watched his career explode at Liverpool with pride, but not surprise.

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“He was naturally good at everything,” says Toye, chuckling. “And he had a really good personality.”

As with Gaelic football, if Bradley hadn’t made it as a footballer, many back home believe he would have succeeded as an athlete.

“He would have been a top-class 800-metre or 1500-metre runner,” says McGonagle. “When I’ve been watching him on the television playing for Liverpool, he’s got the physique, acceleration and a stride pattern that allows him to cover the ground. Everyone is just so proud of what he is doing.”

(Top photos: Andrew Jones/The Athletic, John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

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Andrew Jones is a Staff Writer for The Athletic covering Burnley FC and Liverpool FC. Having graduated from the University of Central Lancashire with a First Class Honours Degree in Sports Journalism, Andrew has had written work published for the Liverpool Echo, Chelsea FC and Preston North End. Follow Andy on Twitter @adjones_journo

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