Updated: November 11th, 2023
By Dermot McPeake
Paddy Bradley was once the best forward in Gaelic football.
The second highest Ulster scorer in the history of the championship, overtaken recently by Conor McManus, Bradley was mechanically efficient in front of goal. When he drew back the left foot there was an inevitability about the outcome. If you were there, you know. He had a deadly right foot too. We’ll come to that.
Like the greatest musicians or artists on stage, they make their craft appear natural, almost easy. What the audience doesn’t see are the hours, days and years of hard work before the lights go on.
Paddy Bradley was ‘always, always’ the last person to leave the training field. That’s not hearsay. That’s testimony of his cousin and club and county team-mate, Gerard O’Kane.
“He took at least twenty shots every single night after everyone else had finished. It wasn’t glamorous. It was just what he did.”
Over the course of an eighteen year playing career that’s around fifty thousand shots more than the next man.
When Watty Grahams held a fundraising chat night ‘Talking Balls’ at Glen club in July 2009, the panel included the great Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh who left Caherciveen at 5am for a sixteen hour trip to Maghera.
Audience members were asked to submit their questions in advance which were put to the panel by host Mark Sidebottom.
“Who is the best? Paddy Bradley or Gooch Cooper?”
The audience shifted in their seats. In the front row sat Joe Gormley and Jim McGuigan. Mícheál went first. In true Kerry-man style, Michael began with a wonderful glowing tribute to Paddy, before coming back to proclaim the artistry of Colm Cooper as superior. It was a characteristically classy answer and politically perfect.
Next was Enda Gormley, who isn’t a politician.
“Paddy Bradley. Absolutely no doubt,” said Gormley, “and I’ll tell you why…” When Enda Gormley says: “and I’ll tell you why…,” people listen.
“For years,” Gormley began, “people said, yeah Paddy is a good player, but he’s all left foot…So what did he do? He went away and put in hours and hours of work and became two-footed. You can have all the talent in the world, and yes Colm Cooper is a genius, but for me greatness is that willingness to better yourself over and over.” Beside Gormley, Anthony Tohill nodded in agreement and Paddy Heaney made it three against one in favour of the Glenullin man.
A friend of mine has a theory that you can tell a lot about a person from the profile picture they use on social media. For some men it’s their wife or girlfriend, for some their kids, for others a depiction of a hobby they enjoy such as fishing or cars, for example. The thought processes behind most of these are obvious and some are almost beyond analysis.
Paddy Bradley’s recent profile picture on Twitter was taken in 2016 near the end of a playing career with Glenullin that began in May 1998. Playing at centre half forward, 16-year-old Bradley scored ten points in the first half of his championship debut against Craigbane. Injury following a heavy knock forced him out at half time but the Mitchel’s held on to win by a point minus their new star. Eighteen years later, the Ulster League, Intermediate League and James O’Hagan trophies are laid out in a line in front of a contented looking Paddy Bradley.
It’s a scene a long way from the occasion of All-Star trips, when the touring party manager Jack O’Connor once quipped with watching reporters, “Lads, he is a scoaaaringg meeeesheeen.” But the public message of the photo is clear. Glenullin is home and home means everything to Paddy Bradley.
The work Bradley has done with his own club, whilst transitioning from his playing career, is perhaps one of the most missed aspects of the man. A father of four boys aged between four and thirteen, Paddy Bradley lives and makes decisions like he did at the peak of his playing career – quickly and efficiently.
A member of the senior teaching management team at St Conor’s College, Bradley controls timetabling and cover rotas across a split site school in addition to his day to day teaching role. Combined with managing his club’s senior team and a busy family life, the ability to manage time is critical to success. If you want something done, ask a busy man.
During periods managing Loup and Newbridge in recent years Paddy Bradley maintained his focus on Glenullin, taking charge of underage teams including the Glenullin minors of 2019, who gave eventual Derry and Ulster winners Lavey perhaps their toughest challenge of the year. He is a regular at Go Games at Owenbeg.
The relentless drive that is spoken of by many of Bradley’s former team-mates has now evolved for the benefit of the next generation.
The same unflinching determination that saw Paddy Bradley recover from two cruciate operations, with 6am lonely rehab sessions, driving through ice and snow to Glenullin gym, is perhaps one of the reasons for the contented look of pride in the 2016 photo.
Ernest Hemingway wrote: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
Celtic Park last month was the latest stop on Paddy Bradley’s journey from the best forward in Ireland to a wider, more complex role as a central part of the development of Gaelic football in Glenullin.
It’s a venue Bradley knows intimately with club and county. In the county final of 2007, with Bellaghy and Glenullin level after sixty minutes, he cut onto his left foot and did what he had done a hundred thousand times on training fields and more in his own mind.
The winning score in a Derry senior championship final will always be a treasured memory. But for the restless Paddy Bradley, there will be a lot more of them to come.