If Bradley thought he could get away from the stardom and football for a couple of weeks, he was very much mistaken. He hadn’t realised that so many Scots visit the Orlando area every year and this year in particular, he noticed a lot of holiday makers sporting Scotland shirts, and a number of Hearts shirts after their successful season. This meant he constantly had tourists coming up to him for an autograph and a photo, shaking his hand and wishing him continued success for next season. Even Celtic supporters wanted to be photographed with him which was nice.
All this adulation meant that he didn’t have as much time to devote to the rides and attractions as he would have liked, but it was all good-natured and he was just pleased he had helped give these people such happiness. As they rarely ventured out of the hotel area to eat along the 192 anymore, it did mean that they could eat in relative peace in the evening. Since Bradley was being paid fairly well, the family had clubbed together and bought into the Disney Vacation Club timeshare which meant they could stay in five star Disney properties and most of their neighbours were Americans who hadn’t a clue who he was.
They missed the mass produced stodge of the 192 restaurants, but there was no doubt that food in a Disney restaurant was far superior. Bradley was pleased he could afford to treat his family after they had supported him for all those years. Dad was always there in rain or snow to watch him since he was seven years old. It was payback time as far as he was concerned, especially as after the cup final the Hearts manager had called by his house to offer him a new five year contract which included a basic wage of £20,000 per week, goal scoring bonuses, cup bonuses and so on, plus a review of his basic salary after every season.
Rory MacMillan admitted to Bradley and his Dad that Hearts were unlikely to be able to keep him for long once his reputation grew, but they wanted to get a deal that was fair to Bradley and meant that the club would be able to pay off their debts and still have money to improve their squad when a club did eventually come in for him. No other player at the club was on anything like that, including the captain and even the manager, but he had discussed it with the team and they all agreed that Bradley was worth it. He had been quite touched by this and signed without a moment’s hesitation.
Even though Bradley’s fame had slowed down their holiday this year, it was still a wonderful time spent with family and, as was the case every other year, there were regrets when their time was up and they had to return to normality. Bradley had another couple of weeks before training started for the new season but he had managed not to put any weight on this time, he put that down to the less calorie laden food on offer in the Disney restaurants.
He had much to look forward to this season, what with the European Championships at the end of the season being held in France when he would be approaching his 18th birthday. He had to make sure his performance levels remained high and he must ensure he kept learning and improving if he wanted that big move and selection for Scotland.
There was never any doubt that he would have another good season. His friend Jose had eventually signed a contract with Hearts after his loan spell ended which pleased Bradley immensely. Jose had been spending more time playing wide on the right which complemented Bradley’s role perfectly. In addition to Jose, the manager had attracted a couple of decent eastern Europeans who would complement the squad and give them more depth ready for the Champions League programme which would start in late July with qualifiers against teams who had won their league in the smaller UEFA nations like Latvia, Faroes and Finland. Hearts would join the competition at the second qualifying stage which meant they had to win that one then the following round before they got to the lucrative group stage which they were all hoping for.
Pre-season training consisted of a few friendly games away to teams below their division who could do with a money-making game against the current champions. Some of them had connections with Hearts. Brechin’s manager was a former player, Livingston’s player coach was good friends with Rory MacMillan and so on. Of course, they would only agree to a friendly if would ultimately benefit Hearts and their preparation for the new season, which it usually did.
There had been mention of doing a small European tour somewhere like Belgium or Austria, but that had been deemed too costly by the board who were busy counting the money they had received for winning the league. Nobody was in any doubt how much in debt the club was in and any monies coming in had to be dealt with professionally by those in charge. As long as there was money to strengthen the squad, then Rory was happy.
By the time the 2015-16 season was upon them, the squad was fit and raring to go. Bradley had managed to bulk up his physique with muscle by training harder than ever during the summer. This would help him fend off the more physical rigours of playing at a higher level.
Their first games would be Champions League second round matches against Rosenborg of Norway which proved a tough draw, Hearts winning it 2-1 on aggregate. They met an even tougher team in the third round in Dynamo Tbilisi who had a strong European record and would take some beating. The first leg involved an arduous journey to Georgia where they were welcomed cordially and managed to scrape out a 1-1 draw with Bradley scoring the equaliser that kept their hopes alive.
Dynamo Tbilisi received a similar welcome when they flew into Edinburgh a week later for the return match at a packed Tynecastle. It was a tense game with Hearts eventually winning 1-0 to secure their place in the lucrative group stages for the first time in their history. The team celebrated this achievement and eagerly awaited the draw for their group. Realistically, they had no hope of progressing through to the knock out round, but getting this far would guarantee six games against some of the best teams in Europe. More money to be made.
The draw was made one morning during training so everybody huddled around the TV in the boardroom to see who they drew. The excitement levels rose as each team was drawn out of the hat and there was much speculation as to who they would be grouped with. It could be Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Juventus or one of the English giants. They didn’t care, this was to be the pinnacle of their career for most of the players, and if this was as far as they got in Europe, they wouldn’t mind at all.
All was quiet in the boardroom as the seeded teams were drawn first, followed by the second tier, third and finally fourth seeds which included Hearts. A huge cheer went up when Hearts name was drawn out placing them in a group consisting of Paris St Germain, Shakhtar Donetsk and Liverpool. PSG were one of the favourites to win the tournament and to be honest, Hearts were going to have their work cut out beating any of these teams, but the manager insisted that this was what they were all here for and they should enjoy the ride. There would be some memorable nights ahead and if they finished third in the group, they would drop into the Europa League which would pitch them in against some beatable teams and prolong their European adventure.
Bradley couldn’t wait to get started but there was training to see to first as their first league game was fast approaching. They had a title to defend.
They were unbeaten in their first ten games, dropping points only once and this saw them sitting at the top of the league by two points. All was looking good on that front, in Europe it was slightly harder. They were soundly beaten by PSG 3-0 at Murrayfield (Tynecastle had been deemed too small to accommodate Champions League crowds) and 5-0 in Paris, scored a credible 1-1 draw in Donetsk only to lose at home 2-1 and in the Battle of Britain, they drew 0-0 at home and lost 2-0 at Liverpool, finishing bottom of their group with two points.
All these games were wonderful experience for Bradley and the other youngsters in the team and they learned a lot from them. Of the two goals scored, Bradley had managed to bag both of them which drew good reviews in the local papers. His stock was rising quickly and there were more and more teams looking closely at him. It was only going to be a matter of time before he got snapped up if he continued playing like this.
Being out of Europe was a mixed blessing. It meant that they could concentrate on maintaining their league progress which they did admirably. By the time there were only five games left in the season Hearts were still sitting top after only dropping six points in total after draws against Celtic, Aberdeen and surprisingly, newly promoted Dunfermline Athletic which Bradley found ironic. It had been strange playing at his home town club’s ground; somewhere he had seen loads of times but never played there. They had also been knocked out of the Scottish Cup away to Dundee United which was a shame as they fancied their chances this season when Celtic were also surprisingly knocked out early.
When the last home game of the season came around, they were already confirmed as champions for the second year running and the team were looking forward to repeating their celebrations of a year earlier. The season had been another good one for Bradley, in thirty eight league games, he had scored thirty six goals and was named Player of the Month every month except January when he was second to his good friend Jose Sanchez who had become another fans’ favourite.
On the international front, Bradley had featured in all of Scotland’s friendlies leading up to the Euros and enjoyed similar goal scoring success with eight goals in seven games. He was becoming the first name on the team sheet and there was no doubt that he would be picked for the competition. When the draw for the Euros was made, he was at home watching it with his Dad in a state of high excitement. It was entirely possible that Scotland could get drawn in the same group as England and there was plenty of banter going back and forth between him and his Dad.
The banter turned into whoops of joy for Bradley as they were indeed drawn to play England along with Switzerland and Ukraine. Brian didn’t know whether to laugh or cry; who would he support when Scotland played England? Would he cheer if Bradley scored against his team? He was in a dilemma whereas Bradley couldn’t wait to beat the Auld Enemy, completely forgetting his English roots. Martine was more pragmatic; he was born in Scotland, lived there all his life and despite his roots, he was a proud Scot who couldn’t wait to humiliate England.
They couldn’t wait to get started.