After spending four seasons with Dunfermline Colts enjoying huge success and a lot of national interest, Bradley was well and truly in the big time with Hearts. They had nurtured him through the age levels, often playing with other players much older than him, and now he was in with a chance of being selected for the first team even before his 16th birthday.
He had already represented Scotland at all levels and had drawn a lot of attention from clubs all over the UK who were starting to hear about this potential world class player who some were saying could turn Scotland’s international team into world beaters on his own, which was all a bit premature for a sixteen year old who had yet to be tempted away from success by following his friends down the Buckfast route.
Bradley had shown no such signs of being distracted though, and when his 16th birthday came around his parents couldn’t have been more proud. He had continued to be half decent at school who were happy to encourage him in his sporting ambitions anyway, and they had never caught him with a cigarette or can of beer which pleased them a lot. Bradley was only interested in one thing and nothing would get in his way. He looked after his body, followed the Nutritionist’s advice at Hearts to the letter and trained as often as he could. The club were delighted with his progress and on his birthday tied him down to a five year contract with the first team on the grand sum of £1,000 per week plus bonuses, and a release clause of £25million to detract other clubs from buying him on the cheap. Hearts finances weren’t great, so if any club did activate the minimum fee release clause, they would be rich beyond their wildest dreams. Stuart would probably get a cut as well as a reward for finding him and improving his game during the years he was at Dunfermline Colts.
Stuart and Martine’s affair had eventually fizzled out after a few months which suited Stuart as he didn’t want to jeopardise his career. Her attention was drawn to other men not in his circle of acquaintances thankfully so he could concentrate on his job. He still didn’t understand how Brian hadn’t caught her out yet, and hoped he never would know anything about him and Martine as that could get messy. Brian and Martine were still together, still going to Florida every year and living as normal life as possible. Stuart had got a new girlfriend now anyway.
The current manager of Hearts was an ex-professional who was taking his first steps in management at one of his former clubs. As well as Hearts, Rory MacMillan had played for Raith Rovers and Aberdeen winning 32 caps for Scotland so he knew his way around and was a highly rated young coach.
When he took over, Hearts were a mid-table Premier League team who lacked money so they were relying on hot prospects coming through the youth system. As Rory had also coached Scotland youth during his career, he was in the best place to work with Hearts group of promising talent and much was expected of him.
They did have a few old pros that had passed their peak and were plying their trade with Hearts to top up their pension and offer guidance to the numerous youngsters. They were all over 32 and had been around the block a few times; perfect for mentoring young talent and this was what Rory had to build on.
When the first team reported back for training after the summer break, they were called one by one into Rory’s office for a chat about what their role would be in the coming season and see what the responses would be. When an older player was told that he would only be a fringe player for the coming season they didn’t usually take the news too well. On the other hand, there was nothing like making a sixteen year old’s face light up when Rory told them they were in the first team squad and were likely to be gradually introduced into the team when he thought they were ready.
Rory had worked out his best eleven from what players he had registered with the SFA and there were obviously some disappointed players that didn’t make it. Sometimes, they promised to knuckle down and work hard at getting into the first team next season; some made empty threats about speaking to their agent and getting them a club where they would get regular first team game time. Rory had seen it all before. Most of them didn’t even have agents at that age and even the older players’ agents warned them not to expect a club as big as Hearts to come in for them any time soon.
When it was Bradley’s turn to meet Rory, he was enthusiastically nervous. Rory told him to sit down and asked him what he thought he would be doing this season. Bradley had spent the last few years coming up through the ranks and he knew he was one of the best players on their books. At sixteen, with a nice new contract signed, he told Rory he expected to be in the first team squad and hopefully get some first team action this season.
Rory grinned at his confidence, but didn’t disagree with him.
‘Funny, that’s exactly how I see it, Bradley. I’ve been following your career even before I took over this club. I know what you can do, I know what you’re capable of and of course, I coached you with Scotland’s youth team so I know more about you than you could imagine. I do my homework thoroughly which is why I want to see you playing more than half the games this season. You’ll be on the bench to start with as I want you to watch what goes on, who plays where and work to their strengths. That’s the number ten role; knowing where to pass the ball into the box where your team mates will get on to it. Kevin McNair is playing that position now, but he’s 33 and on the decline. He will be starting games, but I’ll be wanting you to replace him by Christmas. How do you feel about that, Bradley? Up to the job?’
Bradley was astounded. ‘Yes Boss, I’m definitely up to the job. I can learn a lot from Kevin but I’ve been watching him anyway and I think I know how he plays. I was a big fan of his when he played for Scotland a few years ago.’
‘Good. Keep watching him from the bench. I’ve told Kevin my plans and whilst he isn’t ready to quit just yet, he needs the competition. Watch out for him though, he can be a vindictive bugger when he wants to be.’
Bradley left Rory’s office on cloud nine. He couldn’t wait to tell his parents and brother when he got home that afternoon after training. He had made it to the first team and he was only sixteen.
Training was a pleasure that day; he was with the first team along with some of the other younger players who had come through the ranks, although most of them were much older than him. Some of them were 20. They played an eleven-a-side game after training which was hard work. Despite the fact that Kevin McNair wasn’t supposed to be marking him, he was showing Bradley a lot of attention with some heavy tackles and a lot of glaring. His coach told him to get back in position, but he persisted the whole game with Bradley lucky not to be side lined with an injury after one nasty challenge from McNair. At that point, the coach took him off and gave him a good talking to.
McNair caught up with Bradley in the changing rooms after training and put his arm around him.
‘No hard feelings Bradley, you’ve just got to realise what playing this position is all about. Players will want you out of the game any way possible and not always legally. You did well avoiding some of my tackles, keep working on it and you’ll be fine.’ Mc Nair offered.
Bradley wasn’t sure what to make of McNair’s advice. Did he mean it sincerely or was he just trying to tell Bradley that he wasn’t getting the number ten shirt while he was still around?’ He wasn’t going to mention it to anybody but the captain, Fraser Ingram, had watched their conversation with interest but didn’t feel the need to talk to either of them at that time. He would keep an eye on the situation going forward though.
Fraser Ingram had been with Hearts since he was a youth player, much like Bradley, so he knew what to watch out for from ‘over the hill’ players like McNair. It was perfectly understandable; McNair would be realising that his career is nearly over and the thought of what to do afterwards frightened him so he would do whatever it took to prolong his career, including crocking up and coming rivals for his shirt.
The first game of the 2014-15 season was away to Partick Thistle and Bradley was named on the bench while McNair retained his number 10 shirt and strutted around the pitch showing off his waning skills, getting caught in possession too often and earning a mouthful from the manager. Overall though, he didn’t play badly and scored a goal in the second half that justified his wages for the week, the game ending with a 2-1 win for Hearts.
As the team left the pitch backslapping themselves for securing a precious win, Bradley run up to each of the players and congratulated them, even McNair who just shot him a glance and said ‘That’s how to do it, son.’ Bradley still didn’t know how to take him, but he did know that if McNair kept showboating and playing to the crowd, his time would come sooner rather than later. He was only sixteen, plenty of time to watch and learn.