I remember the first time I met Liam Bradley. It was his first home game in charge of Antrim, on a cold January afternoon in 2009, and he had just witnessed his new team lose by two points to Cavan.
He came bounding up the Casement Park steps after the match, when I shoved a dictaphone under his nose. Tony McCollum, the team liaison manager who would remain by his side for the next four seasons, whispered into Baker’s ear to tell him who I was.
As usual when I meet a new Antrim manager, there was a slight nervousness on my part. Get off on the wrong foot, ask an impertinent or stupid question, as has happened in the past, and the relationship can be soured from day one. Given the Antrim Senior managers, be it in football or hurling, are the two figures we need to speak to most often, a fall out could prove very difficult.
My nerves weren’t set at ease when the big man began to speak. He has a tendency, unusual in a lot of sportspeople, to stare you straight in the eye, often from very close quarters, when he answers your questions.
You feel you must listen, because you are frozen to the spot. In truth, he scared the shit out of me.
The interview must’ve gone OK because he had no problem answering the phone or taking questions post match for the rest of the Spring.
Even when it must’ve been hard to talk, he always did his duty. Unlike his predecessors, some of whom simply couldn’t be bothered, or slammed the changing room door on reporters’ faces after a loss.
I remember in that first season, after the Division 4 final loss to Sligo, cornering him under the stand at Pearse Park in Longford. He had just completed a series of TV and radio interviews, and you could tell he’d much rather be heading home than talking to me. But as always, he did.
On the eve of the 2009 Ulster Championship, I got the annual email from the county to inform the press of the Antrim open evening, when players and managers would be available for interview. Unusually, the event would be held at Creggan.
It was a beautiful sunny evening when I pulled into the new Kickhams clubrooms in Staffordstown on the lough shore. Jesus, I thought, I must’ve got the wrong night. The place was virtually deserted. There wasn’t any of the usual TV trucks, cameras and recording paraphernalia that accompany these events. There wasn’t even anybody else there.
Eventually I ran into John Martin from Gaelic Life, and we found Bradley and one other journalist, Paddy Heaney from the Irish News, in the clubrooms. Three journalists in total, and only two of us spoke to Bradley.
Less than a week later, when Antrim famously triumphed in Donegal, Bradley made a great deal of this apparent snub by the media in the run up to the clash. The media, he suggested, had written off Antrim before a ball had been kicked and now we were facing into an Ulster semi-final against Cavan.
Before the semi-final a second press night was held in Creggan. This time, it was hard to find a parking space. I was chatting to a player in the crowded club rooms when the man we were all here to see arrived. He walked into the room, and everyone turned towards him.
‘There’s only one man in this room I want to speak to,” he smiled, pointing in my direction. I turned around to see who was behind me. No-one.
That memorable year Liam gave me and my colleagues unrestricted access to his players and his management team. We were treated like royalty before and after the Cavan match, ahead of the Ulster final, and the thrilling Qualifier against Kerry. He even gave me the final team a few hours earlier than the players so it would make that week’s edition.
The following year, the GAA rewarded the Andersonstown News with a McNamee Award in recognition of our coverage of the 2009 Ulster Football Championship. Without Liam’s help, that simply wouldn’t have happened, and the entire sports team are grateful to him for that.
Over the past four years Bradley has given Antrim supporters a lot to be proud of. Those scenes in Clones and Tullamore, the sheer passion and colour of the newly awoken Antrim support, were the best moments for Antrim football fans in a generation. Even thinking back to the amazing number of Antrim flags and bunting throughout the county that summer brings a smile to the face.
Consecutive promotions in 2009 and 2010 brought Antrim to the heights of Division 2, and included a win over Meath that year, as well as trips to Ulster rivals Derry and Tyrone.
Tyrone recorded a second consecutive Ulster Championship win over Antrim in 2010, but in the Qualifiers we drew with Kildare at an emotionally charged St Conleth’s Park, Newbridge in the hours after General Dermot Earley’s funeral, which in my mind was amongst the best Antrim performances of recent years.
Bradley has been criticised in some quarters for being too negative tactically. The masterstroke to drop Terry O’Neill back as a sweeper in 2009 was a novel and effective idea for Antrim at the time, and that tactic continued right up to the end.
By the time we played Tipperary in the Qualifiers this year, one sweeper had become two. Bradley often longed for a powerful, skilful, scoring full forward, in the mould of his son, Paddy.
Various players and schemes were devised to fill that gap. Michael McCann, Michael Magill, Sean Burke, Brendan Herron, Kevin Niblock, Mark Dougan, Kevin Brady and even Aodhan Gallagher have been tried up there, none with any lasting impression.
Bradley has stayed loyal to a nucleus of players from day one, or perhaps more tellingly, they have stayed loyal to him. The McCann brothers, Tony Scullion, Kevin Niblock, Justin Crozier and James Loughrey, who would become the first Antrim player to represent Ulster for many years, have all blossomed under the Glenullin man’s guardianship.
Others have fallen by the wayside, for various reasons. Sean McVeigh emigrated to London, Niall McKeever signed professional terms with Aussie Rules outfit Brisbane Lions, and there have been notable fallings out with a host of players. Conor McGourty, Kevin McGourty, Gerard O’Boyle, Paddy Cunningham, Sean Kelly, Andy McClean, Colin Brady and most recently Aodhan Gallagher have played for Antrim under Bradley but were not, for a host of reasons, asked back or made themselves available to him for his final match in Tipperary.
On Sunday last Donegal impressively powered their way to only their second ever All-Ireland Final. Stand up and take a bow, Liam Bradley.
After that shock defeat to the Saffrons in 2009, Donegal fundamentally reassessed their approach to inter-county football, and drafted in Glenties man Jim McGuinness to build from the bottom up. Even after the restructuring had taken place, Antrim restricted Donegal to a 1-10 to 0-7 haul last season in Ballybofey, with their goal coming in the dying moments.
Bradley has made a giant contribution to the cause of Antrim football.
He has left his successor with a relatively young side packed with talent, and, more importantly, a bit of self confidence and belief.
Massive wins over Cavan, Donegal, Meath, Galway and others have relit the flame for Antrim football. Bradley has given us a base, now it’s time to build for the future.