Despite a spirited performance, the Hibs game ended in a one-all draw which wasn’t ideal as Celtic won their game to go above Hearts by one point. The mood in the dressing room was one of defeat, even though they hadn’t lost. It was the manager’s job now to rouse the troops ready for the next game. They couldn’t afford to lose any more points and they still had to play Celtic away on the penultimate day of the season which game them some hope. They knew they were capable of beating them, but must concentrate on winning the other remaining games or the Celtic result would be irrelevant.
Bradley hadn’t had a particularly great game, despite creating their equaliser near the end of the game. Rory told him that he looked tired and that was a result of playing four matches in eight days. He needed some rest before they got back to training for their next game and told him to take Monday off and relax. It was the first time he had considered his performance was not as good as he expected, but coach was right; he was tired after all those games so he took his advice on board.
By Wednesday, he was feeling much better. The break had done him good and he was now raring to get back into training ready for the home game against Inverness on Saturday. The papers were full of reports of Bradley’s performances and debating whether he would lead Scotland to glory one day. His scrapbook was getting full up already and their computer’s hard disk was becoming equally stuffed with reports and photos. He was constantly in demand for press interviews with all the major and local newspapers and magazines like Match of the Day and Four Four Two who did a feature on him in their ‘The Boy’s a Bit Special’ section where they highlight promising young talent coming through. If you were to look at this feature a few years ago showcasing the bright prospects of 2010, it would be worrying to see that none of them had made it big. This concerned Bradley a bit and brought home the reality that this might not last forever. One bad injury, descent into drinks and girls or just lose interest in the game, and that would be it. A wasted opportunity.
For the rest of the season, Bradley was featured heavily in the press after making good progress playing for Hearts and Scotland. He got the senior call up as promised by Jimmy Anderson back in December for the games against Portugal at home and San Marino away in the March. As for Hearts, they had gone on a long winning streak and with two games to go, sat on top of the Premier League separated by one point to Celtic who had uncharacteristically lost a home game against St Mirren which could cost them the title.
Rory MacMillan pressed the point home to the team; this was their best chance ever to win the title for Hearts. They needed to not lose at Celtic away then beat Inverness at home on the last game of the season and the title would be theirs. There was a buzz around Riccarton at training as they all wanted to win it badly.
To improve the squad, the manager had been successful in bringing in two decent players in the January transfer window. One was an experienced defender who had been plying his trade in League One in England and would be good at offering experience to their young defence. The other one was Jose Sanchez, an 18-year-old Spanish midfielder who had joined them on loan from Valencia, thanks to one of Rory’s contacts at the Spanish club. He played in the same position as Bradley and was brought in as it looked like Kevin McNair’s career was virtually over after his ligament injury. His season was certainly over which didn’t do much for his mood and attitude towards Bradley.
He had a lot of skill and pace, but he lacked experience on the pitch so he would be a decent back up for Bradley. By the time the season was drawing to an exciting conclusion, Bradley and Jose were best buddies. His English was better than Bradley’s Spanish, but they just hit it off from day one. They would often go for a coffee after training and Jose would often take the train over to Fife to have Sunday dinner with Bradley and his family.
Jose had fitted in well at Hearts with the support of his captain and also his good friend Bradley. He had even got a few substitute appearances in the remaining games coming on for Bradley now and then to give him a rest, especially when the internationals were coming up.
By the time March had come around, Scotland’s supporters were getting excited about the upcoming qualifiers. They actually had a decent chance of success, especially if Bradley was in form, which he generally was. Jimmy Anderson had brought a few other youngsters into the first team squad, including a couple of lads Bradley had played with at the under 17s games.
The first game was home to Portugal at Hampden Park, which was on TV. This was to be Bradley’s full international debut and the papers were full of reports about the youngest ever debutant in a Scotland shirt at sixteen years of age. Requests for interviews were increasing but thanks to Jimmy Anderson’s intervention Bradley wasn’t distracted too much. He should have been more nervous than he was as he listened intently to Jimmy’s pre-match instructions. He warned Bradley that Portugal’s centre half was a dirty bugger who would try and hack him down at every opportunity so he had better watch out.
As kick off time drew nearer, the players wound each other up and got into a confident state of mind; pumped up and ready for one of the most important games Scotland had played in years. The capacity crowd roared their approval as they emerged from the tunnel, marching in a straight line like soldiers going into battle. Their opponents were indeed physical and they were given four yellow cards in the first twenty five minutes for persistent fouling. One particularly nasty foul was committed on Bradley after only three minutes when he tried to run through their defence. At least it led to a penalty which the skipper duly scored. 1-0 to Scotland! The crowd went wild and wanted more. Bradley gave them what they wanted in the 22nd minute with a superb lob into the box which caught the Portugal goalkeeper off his line and could only watch in horror as the ball drifted into his goal. 2-0 to Scotland!!
By half time, everybody in the stadium was beyond delighted. This team looked like they could go far, especially if they play like this against one of the highest ranked teams in the world. The second half saw a Portugal comeback and when they scored from a free kick in the dying minutes of the game, the crowd grew tense. It wasn’t enough though, and Scotland celebrated a 2-1 victory which would virtually guarantee them a place in next year’s Euros.
The mood in the dressing room afterwards was jubilant and Champagne bottles were being popped, despite the fact that mathematically they could still miss out if they lost to San Marino at the weekend. At worse, they had qualified for a play-off game, so there was still much to celebrate. Bradley was named Man of the Match for scoring the winning goal and generally put in an encouraging shift even though he was subject to a number of fouls. He looked at his legs which were covered in bruises when Jimmy came over to him.
‘Welcome to the big boys’ game, son. That’s the kind of treatment you will get against some of these teams. Not like playing in Scotland, is it?’ He laughed.
‘You can say that again, boss. I’ve never been kicked up in the air so much. Why didn’t the referee stop them?’ Bradley asked as the physio rubbed cream on his legs.
‘It’s the way it is in Europe. Completely different game. You have to adapt, and you did that. Well done. Let’s look forward to San Marino.’
Outside, there were hordes of reporters all hoping to get an interview with Bradley. His Dad and Jimmy carefully ushered him away from the crowd and into Jimmy’s car and headed back to the team’s hotel just outside Glasgow where there were even more press gathered, all wanting to write a story about this precocious youngster who took on the dirty tactics of their opponents that night, and won.
On the Friday morning as the team arrived at Glasgow airport for their flight to Italy to take on the minnows of San Marino, there were huge crowds gathered to wish the team well. Cameras were flashing, fans jostled to get closer to the players and the press were there in abundance. TV crews followed their every move as they struggled to get through security with the help of the extra airport staff brought in for this occasion. They had experienced nothing like this since the Scotland team were cheered off in 1978 for their ultimately disastrous World Cup in Argentina.
Once they were through and in a lounge, the manager gave them a pep talk and outlined what was expected of them this weekend. San Marino were there for the taking, but they shouldn’t be too complacent. They had nothing to lose and the pressure was all on Scotland to produce a result worthy of their higher ranking. He left the team under no illusions that anything less than a 5-0 win would be unacceptable, even though it meant they had qualified.
Jimmy Anderson was pleased to see the players’ reaction. They had taken his advice on board and were going to smash San Marino.