Hearts’ season was going from strength to strength. By Christmas, they were sitting in second spot just a couple of points behind Celtic with Rangers six points behind them. Bradley had continued to improve his game and McNair was working hard to make sure Bradley didn’t get picked instead of him. He knew Bradley was getting better and it would only be a matter of time before he claimed his position in the team. By having that pressure on him, McNair had actually been having a good season scoring ten goals so far and making numerous goals for his strike partner. Things were looking especially good for Bradley one morning when he was called into his manager’s office after training.
‘Sit down Bradley. Got some good news for you.’ Rory MacMillan told him as he passed a letter across his desk to him.
Bradley picked up the letter which was addressed from the Scottish Football Association at Hampden Park. His eyes lit up as he scanned through it then re-read it again.
‘Thought you’d be pleased.’ Rory laughed. ‘Fully deserved and it proves that the SFA are actually listening to the managers. I spoke to them ages ago about selecting you for the under 17s and they promised to take a look at you playing for the reserves. They agree with me that you are ready for some international football. Well done!’
Bradley was speechless. He thanked his manager profusely and questioned him as to what would happen next. Scotland had a couple of friendly internationals lined up for the under 17s against Wales and Northern Ireland in a couple of weeks’ time and he should get in touch with the Scotland coach, who Rory knew well, and make arrangements regarding meeting up and training. He couldn’t wait to tell his parents this latest bit of great news regarding his progress and see who was going to come and watch him play.
When he got home that evening he was bursting with pride.
‘Guess what? I’ve been picked for Scotland under 17s to play against Wales and Northern Ireland!’ Bradley exclaimed excitedly. ‘Who wants tickets?’
‘That’s fantastic news!’ Brian and Martine replied. ‘Shame it’s not England though.’ Brian added.
‘I’ll be playing England one day, Dad!’ Bradley laughed.
Not quite what I meant, thought Brian, but he couldn’t disguise his delight at the news nonetheless. They spoke about nothing else during dinner and into the evening. Bradley was having a text conversation with Sam who was at university in Aberdeen studying Maths telling him all about it. He had contacted the SFA and was told to report to their office at Hampden Park on the 14th for briefing and assessment. He couldn’t wait.
That coming Sunday, Hearts’ home game against Celtic was live on TV and Bradley was hoping to be on the bench at least for that one. He knew all about Celtic and the way they ruthlessly crushed other teams in the league and that night he had a dream about the game. He dreamed that McNair got injured with ten minutes to go and 1-0 down when the manager told him to get warmed up as he was going on. The dream became a bit surreal and wishful thinking after that as in his dream he scored two quick goals which won the match and he got carried off shoulder high by his team mates. At least he could dream.
Training that week had an extra edge to it with Celtic being the opponents that weekend. If they won, Hearts would go top of the league by one point which would be fantastic for a club like theirs. McNair was still trying to put the boot in on Bradley but age was telling and he would ride most of McNair’s tackles with ease. It was near the end of their eleven a side practise match when McNair dived in late on Bradley but caught his studs in the Astroturf causing him to yell out in pain. Bradley was the first to ask him if he was okay only to be met with a mouthful of abuse as the medical staff ran on the pitch. It didn’t look good for McNair and after scans showed that he had strained his medial ligaments he had to accept that he wasn’t going to be taking any part in Sunday’s game.
The manager was in deep discussion with his staff and medics about what to do for the game. They estimated McNair would be out for at least three weeks, possibly more due to his age and the healing process taking longer. Rory took the decision reluctantly to pick Bradley in his place. He was picking him earlier than he would have liked and he would have preferred an easier opponent than Celtic, but he had no choice as there were no other players that could play in that position. He could have changed the shape of the team but with only two days to go before the game he wouldn’t have enough time to drill the players into playing a different shape. He called Bradley into his office after training.
‘Well, you saw what happened out there this morning, Kevin is going to be out for at least three weeks so you’re going to have to step up. I know you’ve got the skill and temperament for it, but this is a huge game and I don’t want too much pressure on you at your age. Do you think you can fill in for Kevin?’ Asked Rory.
‘I’m ready, Boss. I’ve been learning a lot from watching him and I think I know what to do. I won’t let you down.’ Bradley replied.
‘Good lad. I know you’ll be fine. Just don’t panic, play your usual game and watch out for them tackles. If you think Kevin is bad, Celtic have some nasty bits of work playing in their defence who would love to show you who’s boss. Just be careful, don’t do anything to wind them up.’
Now Bradley had something else to feel good about. Although, as much as he wasn’t great friends with McNair, he wouldn’t wish an injury like that on him. In fact, McNair came up to him on crutches afterwards and wished him luck for Sunday, but just to keep his shirt warm for him as he was going to come back better than ever.
It was going to be a busy few weeks for him now what with the internationals as well. He needed to step up on his stamina training so asked if he could stay behind after training and work on a few things with the coaches. When he told his parents later they were thrilled again and Brian suggested that they should all go on Sunday if they could get tickets. Sam would be back for Christmas holidays so it would be perfect timing.
Maybe Bradley’s dream was almost right, except he hoped to play more than ten minutes.