Ironically, AC Milan, who had been trying to buy Bradley in the January transfer window, were Barcelona’s opponents in the Champions League Final. They had beaten Arsenal in the semi-final which was a pity as Bradley would have preferred to play them rather than Milan where he had got a bad press after the media twisted his comments around and made out Bradley had said AC Milan weren’t a big club, which was nothing like what he had said. Yet again, the press had gone out of their way to create a problem where one didn’t exist.
Stories were going around that Milan’s veteran centre-half, Paolo Conti was going to get him for being disrespectful to his beloved club where he had played over seven hundred games and worshipped the club as much as the fans worshipped him. It was to be his last game before retiring and it was expected that Milan must win at all costs. If that meant crippling Bradley early in the game, then so be it.
The press were having a field day with the story and every day something else was printed that would stoke up the fire of hatred aimed at Bradley. By the time the final came around, Bradley was tempted to feign an injury so he didn’t have to face them. He realised that this was the cowards’ way out and he wouldn’t want Milan to have that satisfaction. He would have to be clever and avoid the attention of Conti and his pals.
The pre-match team talk focused on protecting Bradley and trying to give him the space to run at their defence where they would surely win a penalty if the press was to be believed. Despite this, Bradley was nervous; more nervous that he had ever been, and that worried him. Oscar Fuentes took him to one side and promised him it would be alright. If it looked like he was in danger of being injured he would sub him immediately. This gave him some respite, but when the clubs were lining up in the tunnel, he couldn’t help noticing the glares he was getting from the Milan team.
‘Look, I know what you have read in the press about me and I can assure you I never said any of those things. I have nothing but good feelings towards AC Milan and I hope you aren’t going to spoil the game for everyone by just kicking me off the pitch. If you do, then I will be diving in the box and making sure at least one of you gets sent off before I smash the penalty into your net.’ Bradley warned them.
It was a feeble attempt to calm the situation down which probably wouldn’t work, so he decided to play them at their own game.
Within five minutes of the kick off, Conti got the first yellow card for a vicious kick at Bradley which luckily didn’t make contact. It could have broken his leg if it had. That had prompted Bradley to go face-to-face with Conti and warn him he was going to get him sent off in his last ever game then kick the fuck out of him in the dressing room after he received his winner’s medal.
This took Conti by surprise as Bradley’s reputation was that he wasn’t that type of player and he was seeing a different side to him, one which he didn’t like. Conti knew that Bradley would get the decision if he dived in the area which would result in him getting a second yellow. He would have to be crafty about it; he still wanted Bradley out of the game.
It wasn’t just Conti who was out to crock him; the rest of the Milan players tackled him heavily whenever they got the chance and by half time the referee had handed out five yellow cards to AC Milan and the score remained 0-0. It hadn’t been a great first half, very little skill on show and with one team dead set on stopping the other team playing their usual game. It was getting panned by the commentators who were accusing AC Milan of ruining the final.
The second half started better than the first. Milan seemed to have eased off the heavy tackling and were trying to play football. Maybe they thought they had roughed up Barcelona enough to make them think twice before starting to come at them. Whatever they thought, it hadn’t worked and Milan reverted to their first half tactics when Bradley was hacked down in the box giving the referee no alternative but to award a penalty.
Although his shin was sore and starting to bruise up already, Bradley insisted on taking the penalty kick, blasting it into the top right corner and giving the keeper no chance. When he added another ten minutes later by running through the Milan defence, dodging the brutal attempts to tackle him, the game was over.
Bradley limped to the side-lines for some treatment to his bruised legs. He had managed to avoid the worst of the tackles, but had still been caught a few times resulting in two more yellow cards, including a second yellow for Conti which sent him off in his final game for Milan.
As he trudged off the pitch to the sound of loud boos and whistles from the majority of the crowd, he glanced at Bradley and muttered something in Italian. It was fortunate that Bradley didn’t speak much Italian, but he caught one or two words and they weren’t complimentary. Bradley just showed him the finger and limped back on to the pitch.
With the main protagonist off the pitch and Milan down to ten men, the game calmed down as Barcelona started to besiege Milan’s goal looking for a third goal to wrap it up. That goal came with five minutes left when Bradley ran down the wing, despite his tired and sore legs, and launched a perfect cross for their centre forward to nod into the net to massive cheers from the crowd.
Oscar Fuentes could now take Bradley off, safe in the knowledge that the game was won and to save his star player from any more kicks. When the electronic board was hoisted above the fourth official’s head with his number ten in red, he hobbled off the pitch to a wall of noise as both sets of supporters cheered and clapped him off.
His manager hugged him as he headed for the benches and told him he had been brilliant, thanking him for winning the trophy for the club who would forever remember this final as one of the dirtiest in history. Milan lost a lot of friends that night and the global view was that they got what they deserved. There was no room for such thuggery on the pitch, especially not in the Champions League Final, and they were condemned roundly, even by their own supporters.
After ninety-eight minutes, including eight minutes of stoppage time, the whistle blew and Barcelona were champions of Europe for another year. The presentation of the trophy was made in the middle of the pitch with Bradley going up to collect his medal last to a crescendo of cheers. When they hoisted the huge trophy aloft, the crowd went wild. Not just because they had won, but it was the manner in which they won, fighting against the brutal tactics of the Italians.
In the dressing room afterwards, there were Champagne corks popping, much hugging and high fives, and tears. The Physio went round each of the players to check for any damage or strains and when he saw Bradley’s legs he winced. There were bluish lumps all over his legs and a couple of cuts for good measure. He would be fine in a few days once the bruises went down, but he was glad that this was the last game of the season as he wouldn’t have been able to play for the next couple of weeks.
He could now go home and spend a few days resting in Mijas with Jessie before setting off for Glasgow then Malaysia and Australia ready for possibly the biggest game of his young career.