As expected, Scotland beat San Marino by the respectable score of 7-0 with Bradley scoring four goals. He thought the game was more like a training session with Scotland playing calmly and passing freely, without too many bad tackles going in. Bradley had been given so much space by the San Marino defence that he had spent the evening dancing around them like he was facing the youth team.
Jimmy Anderson was understandably delighted with the performance and the result and congratulated them on making it to the Euros next year. The draw wouldn’t be made until December but there would be a few friendlies arranged between now and June 2016 when the tournament started. He wished them well with their clubs for the rest of the season and thanked them for all their efforts.
If the crowds at Glasgow airport were bad going out, they were twice as bad when they arrived back on the Sunday morning. This time, most of the players joined in with the fans for pictures and giving brief interviews to the assembled press and TV. It was a splendid atmosphere and Bradley was enjoying the adulation and attention. Especially from the girls in the crowd who, he imagined, would do pretty much anything for him at the moment judging by the looks he was getting. All in good time, he thought.
Hearts had given their international players an extra day off to recover and as they didn’t have another game until Saturday, this wouldn’t prove to be a problem. There wouldn’t be any more international breaks for the foreseeable future which left the manager to concentrate on winning the league, which they were in good shape to do.
In the following weeks, Hearts managed to go on a seven game winning streak which left them two points clear of Celtic with two games to go; the first of those games was away. To Celtic. This was the game where most title contenders choked and threw away the title. Rory MacMillan had to make sure they didn’t fail when they were this close.
As well as Bradley being centre of attention, Rory had come in for a lot of media interest being that it was his first club management job and he was on the brink of glory in his first season in charge. He was already clear favourite to win Manager of the Year after he had turned Hearts from a mid-table club to one with a chance of winning the league with mainly youngsters.
Training went well in the days leading up to the Celtic game, Bradley was still in a rich vein of form having scored twelve goals in the previous fourteen league games; a record that any striker would be pleased with, let alone an attacking midfielder. He had won numerous Man of the Match awards and was favourite for Player of the Year as well as Young Player of the Year. He would have to clear out some of his Dunfermline Colts trophies soon.
Eventually, the weekend arrived and the team boarded the bus to Parkhead to take on Celtic. Everybody was in a positive frame of mind and looked forward to beating them. The pressure was on Celtic who had to make up the gap by beating Hearts and overtaking them going in to the last game. Bradley had managed to get two tickets for his Dad and brother who had travelled down from Aberdeen especially. He enjoyed the positive atmosphere on the bus and although he had played more first team games than he expected, he was just a little bit nervous.
At 2:55 p.m., they filed on to the pitch to be met by 60,000 screaming fans, much noisier than the 50,000 plus that had watched him play at Hampden Park in the Portugal game. The game was tense and edgy. Neither side wanted to make a mistake and they were evenly matched by half time when they went in level at 0-0. The manager gave them a rousing pep talk which ensured they were buzzed up for the second half. Unfortunately for Hearts, they conceded a goal with ten minutes left to play. The home fans were delirious; if the score remained the same then they were in the driving seat to snatch the league title. Bradley was having none of it though and with just two minutes left on the clock curled an unstoppable shot into the top corner. Now it was time for the Hearts supporters to go wild. The pendulum had swung back in their favour again. After some fierce defending against the wave after wave of Celtic’s attacks, the final whistle blew and Hearts had salvaged a precious point. The dressing room was jubilant and Bradley, once again, stole the headlines with his late equaliser. It was now the manager’s job to calm them down and remind them that they weren’t quite there yet. There was a small matter of beating Inverness at home next week before the Champagne corks could pop.
The bus ride back to Edinburgh was a good one. Sunday morning’s ritual of going through the papers with his Dad was getting more and more exciting as they read report after report praising Bradley’s maturity and skills against the best team in Scotland. Inverness would be quaking in their boots, although they were safe in fourth spot with an outside chance of Europa Cup football to look forward to so they shouldn’t be much opposition for them.
The final day of the season came around and Tynecastle was packed to the rafters. You couldn’t buy a ticket for love nor money and thousands of ticketless supporters gathered outside the ground to watch the game on a big screen provided by Hearts. Bradley made sure he got tickets for his Dad and both Grandads who had travelled up for this game. They wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
After a slow start with Bradley hitting the bar once, the score at half time was a 0-0 stalemate. Were the nerves getting to them? Once they heard that Celtic were beating St Mirren 2-0, there was an ominous silence pervading the dressing room. Now was the hour when Bradley needed to step up and take hold of the game. His friend Jose had been brought on at half time to give them another attacking option from the right wing in an experimental 4-2-3-1formation that they had been working on in training. They only had two experienced strikers on the books but could rely on three attacking midfielders to contribute to their goals tally. Even Kevin McNair got twenty minutes on the left side of the three in what would prove to be his last game in a Hearts shirt.
With fifteen minutes to go, Bradley put Jose through in space with only the keeper to beat. He feinted past the goalie and slid the ball into the empty net. 1-0 Hearts!! The crowd went wild as Bradley and Jose ran towards each other and hugged with excitement. Inverness were proving to be tough opposition and had taken them by surprise, but the youngsters of Hearts had won the day eventually.
Three minutes into stoppage time and the crowd were whistling furiously, imploring the referee to blow for full time so they could celebrate winning the league for the first time in fifty-four years. Inverness made one more attack which put the crowd on edge, but it was cleared by the centre-half who unceremoniously booted the ball high up the park. Just as the ball hit the ground, the referee blew for full time triggering scenes of ecstasy among the crowd who swarmed onto the pitch to congratulate the team.
Bradley was lifted shoulder high by fans and team mates alike and carried around the perimeter of the pitch to accept the cheers and applause from Hearts fans tearful with emotion after such a tense game. The manager was similarly being carried around the pitch, deservedly so after bringing them success in his first season. Nobody wanted to go home; they wouldn’t be able to anyway as the scenes outside in Gorgie Road were every bit as wild as inside he ground.
Eventually, the pitch was cleared and representatives of the Scottish FA moved on to the pitch and set up a table with medals for the players and a huge trophy in the middle. Somehow, Rory MacMillan gathered his troops together into some kind of order ready for the presentation.
As each player walked up to the rostrum and collected his medal, the cheering grew louder and louder. When it came to Bradley’s turn, the crowd noise hit the roof as they sang out his name. Finally, it was the turn of Fraser Ingram, the captain, to receive his medal and lift the trophy. The reception was unbelievable with 16,000 deliriously happy Jambos cheering and singing as the team did a lap of honour showing off the trophy to their adoring fans.
Bradley loved every minute of it and didn’t want it to end. He never thought it was possible to feel this happy just by playing the game he loved. He spotted his Dad and Grandads in the main stand and waved furiously, kissing his medal as he watched them dissolve into tears of pride and joy. Thousands of cameras were flashing and the players smiled madly at them, giving the fans something to remember for a long while.
Some two hours later, the crowd had thinned out as the jubilant supporters headed into town to celebrate in style. Edinburgh was not going to be a good place for Hibernian supporters that night; no, it was the turn of the Jambos to party.
It was going to be a long night, that was for sure. In a way, Bradley wished he could have joined them in celebrating, but he was too young to drink, not that he wanted to drink anyway. He would get home, have a cup of tea and some dinner with his adoring family.
Anyway, they still had just one more game to play before their season was finished. A small matter of the Scottish Cup Final to be played at Hampden Park next Saturday, against their toughest rivals; Celtic, who were going to be out for revenge.