Mark Bradley on his decision to opt out of Tyrone’s bid for Sam this year, and his unlikely All-Ireland success with Liverpool Hope University
By Damian Dolan
Tyrone star Mark Bradley admits it’s “going to be tough” watching on when the Red Hand open their Ulster title challenge against Derry at Healy Park on 12 May.
Bradley, who lined out in last year’s All-Ireland final defeat to Dublin, will play no part this year for Mickey Harte’s side, having opted out to do a Postgraduate Certificate of Education at Liverpool Hope University.
But no one will be cheering Tyrone on more than Bradley, who would love to see them lift the Sam Maguire for the first time since 2008, and in doing so end Dublin’s historic drive-for-five.
“I’ll be the biggest supporter they’ll have this year,” Bradley told the Irish World. “It would be great to see them go on and win it.
“You grow up wanting to play for Tyrone and you support them all the way through your childhood, and when you’re not in the team.”
He added: “It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make footballing-wise, or in my life so far.
“But I’m hitting 25 so the main thing for me is trying to tie down a job and start making a few quid. But it will be tough to watch. The nice weather and the packed crowds, they’re the days you really enjoy.”
Bradley will instead be a very interested spectator, having also been part of the Tyrone side which got to within three points of the Dubs in last year’s Super 8s meeting in Omagh.
They went on to rattle Dublin feathers early doors in last year’s All-Ireland final – leading 0-5 to 0-1 after 19 minutes – before a controversial “sucker punch” penalty turned the game in Jim Gavin side’s favour.
“It was one of the best and worst days of my life. You dream of playing in front of 85,000 on All-Ireland final day, so to lose is disappointing. But at the same time just to be part of it is special,” recalled Bradley.
“Dublin are a great side, but we were very confident. In our heads, we had the ability to beat them and we had the players. We had a great start, but certain things on the day just didn’t go our way.”
The Killyclogher man has no doubt that Gavin’s men remain the team to beat, but he’s similarly convinced that the five-in-a-row is far from a foregone conclusion.
“I think they are beatable. It’s a credit to them to be at the top for so long, but it would be good to see Tyrone get one over them this year,” he said.
“Teams come and go and Dublin’s [winning run) will eventually come to an end.”
Whether that happens this year or not remains to be seen, but Bradley says there’s “a lot of optimism” back in Tyrone that they can mount a serious challenge.
Buoyed by reaching last year’s All-Ireland final, Tyrone went close this year to reaching a first Division 1 league final since 2013.
The first step on the road is Derry and making amends for last year’s Ulster Championship quarter-final loss to Monaghan.
“Everything is looking good; we got off to a poor start in the league but we finished really strongly,” said Bradley.
Tyrone did indeed finish strongly – four wins in a row including the scalp of Dublin – after picking up just one-point from their opening three games.
It wasn’t enough to see them sneak into the final, but by the end Tyrone had rediscovered their swagger. Perhaps not surprisingly, Bradley says they won’t be looking too far ahead though.
“Getting a bit of momentum is key and growing confidence. Ulster will be their main aim and once they get that over, they’ll just take each game as it comes. It’s a cliché, but you have to with the Super 8s,” he said.
Encouragement for the likes of Mayo, Kerry and Tyrone comes from Dublin’s three losses in the league – to Monaghan, Kerry and Tyrone – and their failure to reach the Division 1 final for the first since 2012, having won it in 2018 and four years in a row between 2013-16.
While believing Dublin will have been “disappointed” not to have continued their impressive record in the league, Bradley’s warned against reading too much into it.
“Maybe they’ve taken their eye off the mark, or maybe they’ve been trying out new players.
It’s hard to know, but they’ll be the favourites regardless of how they went in the league,” he said.
“You can’t write off Dublin when they’re going for five-in-a-row. They’re a serious side….they’ll be remembered as one of the greats.”
While Dublin, Tyrone, Kerry et al were sizing each other up in the National League, Bradley was otherwise disposed, helping Liverpool Hope University men’s Gaelic football team make their own piece of history.
Having won the Corn na MacLeinn Championship in 2018 – the Higher Education third Tier competition – Hope returned to Ireland in February to retain the trophy. A feat never before achieved by a British university.
In the final, Hope defeated Institute of Technology Tallaght by 3-9 to 0-9 at Mallow GAA Sports Complex in Cork.
Bradley netted Hope’s opening goal to give them a 1-3 to 0-1 lead, and despite having already been reduced to 14-men, the Liverpool side held on.
They’d already seen off Marino College of Dublin in the semi-finals, 3-10 to 0-6, with Bradley again scoring Hope’s opening goal.
“You’re talking Tier 3, but the standard was very good – there were no easy matches. It was really enjoyable to go back home and put yourself up against some of the best teams in Ireland,” he said.
Three weeks later, Hope retained the British championship Division 1 title at Paric na hEireann in Birmingham, in what was a “tense” two days says Bradley.
Hope beat 2017 champions Robert Gordon University (RGU) of Edinburgh in the final by 3-8 to 2-5 – Bradley scoring 1-2.
The Liverpool side had earlier edged past Liverpool John Moores in the semi-finals by 0-4 to 0-3 in a titanic encounter.
And when Hope and RGU met during the group stage, the sides had played out a 0-4 a piece draw.
“When we drew with them in the group stage there were a couple of sendings off. It was a real hard battle,” said Bradley.
“But the final was a very good sporting contest – a really good game of football. The goals made the difference.”
Arriving in Liverpool just three days after Tyrone’s All-Ireland final defeat to Dublin, Bradley was already acquainted with Liverpool Hope GAA manager Conor Boyle.
Prior to his interview for the course, Bradley had been put in touch with Boyle, who gave him some pointers on what to expect.
But he also made sure Bradley was aware that the university had a Gaelic football team – and a “right decent” one at that. The team’s growing reputation had already reached Bradley, however.
During his run to a Sigerson Cup semi-final with Ulster University in 2018, Bradley remembers coming across Hope’s All-Ireland success on social media.
“He [Conor Boyle] mentioned that there was a team and to come out if I was interested, and I was more than happy to,” said Bradley.
“Coming over to Liverpool was quite daunting. I didn’t know anyone who was going to be in my class…..so it helped me to bed in and not be homesick.
“It was great to get back out playing football again…..it takes your mind off the school work.”
Bradley’s course comes to an end at the beginning of July, but he already has his flights booked home for most weekends up until then, in order to play for his home club Killyclogher.
He’s keen no doubt to make up for last year’s senior Tyrone county final loss to Coalisland Fianna.
Two years earlier, Bradley had starred as Killyclogher ended its 13-year wait to win a senior Tyrone championship – Bradley scoring eight points (six from play) in a 0-20 to 0-6 replay win over Coalisland.
A repeat of that will be his aim for 2019, as will cheering on Tyrone to another All-Ireland title. If they can, they’ll be no one happier.