The approaching cup final was somehow not as exciting as winning the league which surprised Bradley as he had always thought the glamour of winning the cup would always be special. Their path to the final had been relatively easy with wins against Arbroath, Dundee, Ross County and Rangers and since Hearts last won the cup only three years ago, he put the apathy down to the fact that they had a good track record in the cup whereas the league had been more elusive.
As the game was at Hampden Park, Bradley managed to get six tickets for his family and friends. Both Grandads, Sam, mum and dad and his old friend Gary would be cheering him on which pleased him greatly. It had been a long season even though he only participated in the second half of it, and he was beginning to feel jaded. So much had happened so fast this season; league winner’s medal, capped for Scotland, qualified for next year’s Euros and established himself as a first team regular.
He knew there had been plenty of scouts at Hearts games recently. Word had travelled and his manager always kept him informed of who was looking at him, who had enquired about the possibility of a transfer, although a lot of them were put off by the minimum fee release clause of £25million. It was a lot of money to gamble on a sixteen year old who had only just broken through, but the manager said it would only be a matter of time before they got a solid offer and Bradley would be heading off to a bigger club.
He never actually wanted to leave Hearts. He loved it there and got on well with all his team mates; even Kevin McNair who was one of the first to congratulate him when he got called up for Scotland. As McNair had won a number of Scottish caps already, he was generous with his advice on how to succeed at international level. McNair’s injury hadn’t improved so he had decided to retire at the end of that season and go off to Largs to do his coaching badges. His leaving party was a wild affair; McNair could let himself go with the booze for once and by about 10 p.m. he was falling over drunk. A happy drunk, but drunk nonetheless. Some of his team mates joined in with the drinking which was perfectly understandable after their recent success, but noticeably all the younger members of the team stuck to mineral water or fruit juice. None of them popped outside for a crafty cigarette either, unlike one or two of the seniors.
Luckily, the team had a few days to recover from McNair’s retirement party as they all had to focus on beating Celtic to win the double. Bradley noticed a few of the players weren’t giving it 100% and worried that this might be exploited by a Celtic team that were fired up for revenge. His worries were about to come to fruition.
On the Saturday morning, they all reported to Riccarton to change into their cup final suits and listen to Rory’s words of inspiration. Winning the league was fantastic, beyond their wildest dreams, but winning the cup was still special and they should be thinking about the supporters; they had followed them home and away all season and they had a duty to perform for them. Nobody likes losing a cup final.
Bradley was starting to know his way around Hampden Park by now, unlike most of his team mates. The atmosphere was intimidating with more Celtic fans than Hearts, which made it feel like an away game. He spotted his family and friend in the decent seats by the half way line and gave them a wave and a thumbs-up before carrying on with his warm up exercises on the pitch.
Once the game got under way, it was clear that the partying and lack of focus was going to cost Hearts dearly. Celtic were superior in all areas of the pitch; they obviously wanted it more than them. However, despite Celtic’s dominance, Hearts were 2-0 up at half time thanks to a well worked solo goal from Bradley and then just before half time their centre forward nodded a corner into the net. Rory didn’t know what to say at half time. How could he bollock them for not giving it their all when they were 2-0 up? This was going to take something special to rouse them into keeping hold of the lead and lifting the trophy.
Whatever was said in the Celtic dressing room at half time obviously had the desired effect as within fifteen minutes of the restart, Celtic had pulled two goals back to make it 2-2. Game on! This did seem to focus Hearts on the job in hand and for the next fifteen minutes they fought their way back into the game, coming close when Bradley’s long shot was parried over the bar by the Celtic keeper.
With five minutes to go, the game looked like going to extra time when a slack back pass fed the ball to Jack McNee, the Celtic centre forward who punished the error by slamming the ball past the Hearts goalie. 3-2 Celtic! The Hearts support couldn’t believe it; they were 2-0 up and now they were on the brink of losing the final 3-2. Football could be a cruel game at times.
When the final whistle blew, the Hearts players fell to the pitch distraught at the thought of being so close then having the cup snatched from them. Bradley couldn’t bear to look up as he sat near the centre circle sobbing. His captain came up to him and pulled him to his feet and congratulated him for his efforts and hugged him. Several Celtic players came up to him and commiserated with him magnanimously. Most of them had been in the same situation and knew how it felt.
During the trophy presentation Hearts had to line up to applaud the victorious Celtic team up the steps to collect the cup and their medals. The Celtic supporters cheered loudly when their captain lifted the cup for the umpteenth time in their history. It hurt Bradley deeply and he vowed he would never have to go through this again. Defeat had made him even more ambitious to be a winner.
The bus ride home was a complete contrast to the last time they returned from Glasgow after drawing with Celtic in the penultimate league game. It was subdued and depressed. Rory had given the players his thanks for giving it their best shot, it just wasn’t to be and they should now go off on holiday and think about next season when they had to defend their title of CHAMPIONS! This lifted the spirits of the team somewhat as their thoughts drifted to where they were off to on holidays. They were all in need of a rest, that much was clear.
When Bradley got home, he threw his runners-up medal on to the floor. It was time for a pep talk from Dad who led him out to the kitchen and explained that life wasn’t all about winning or losing. It was about giving it all you could and realising that sometimes, even that wouldn’t be enough. There would be loads more occasions where Bradley was going to come second and he should learn from those experiences. It was the same philosophy he employed at work. If he missed out on a piece of business he would analyse what went wrong and what he could do better. He was still constantly learning and Bradley should think the same way. As long as the wins outnumber the losses then he had no reason to think he wasn’t going to be a success.
Finally, he asked Bradley where he wanted to go on holiday. They had left booking it until the last minute because of Bradley’s football commitments. Did he want to go to Florida again or did he fancy going to some swish five star resort in Spain where he would be surrounded by fellow professional footballers?
Bradley laughed for the first time since the final whistle.
‘Florida would be good, Dad. It will be nice to go somewhere I can forget about football for a couple of weeks and recharge the batteries.’
‘I was hoping you’d say that. Get packing, we’re leaving on Tuesday!’