Sunday morning came around and Bradley was surprised to see that he wasn’t feeling particularly nervous. Not as nervous as his parents and brother who were visibly shaking at the prospect of him playing Premier League against the best team in that league. Still, if his coach thought he was ready, then that was good enough. All his friends wanted tickets to see him make his debut but they had a game that day so they would have to record the game and watch it later. He managed to get tickets for Mum, Dad and Sam though which was important, it was a shame that his grandparents hadn’t had enough notice otherwise they would have wanted tickets as well. They would be able to watch it on TV though.
Kick off was at 2 p.m. so they set off around 10 a.m., dropped Bradley off at Tynecastle and popped into Edinburgh for some lunch, not that they could eat much as they were so nervous. The city centre was teeming with fans from both sides and they couldn’t help overhearing some of the conversations about that afternoon’s game. Hearts fans excited about seeing this prodigy that they had all heard about and Celtic fans suggesting that they had an advantage with McNair being injured and being replaced by a sixteen year old kid.
After lunch, they joined the thousands of supporters walking along Gorgie Road to the ground and went to the ticket office to pick up their briefs. They found their seats easily enough and got comfortable before looking at the ground filling up with noisy supporters of both sides.
At 1:55 the teams emerged from the tunnel on to the pitch, Bradley wearing the number 18 shirt and looking like he was completely relaxed about being surrounded by 17,000 people, most of those watching him as he made his long awaited debut.
It was a cagey game, neither side wanted to make a mistake and there were very few chances in the first half. Bradley was doing fine so far and with the score 0-0 at half time they regrouped in the dressing room for a managerial chat. Rory MacMillan gave the team some ideas on how to beat their defence by going through the middle rather than relying on wingers where Celtic had the edge. That would involve Bradley becoming more involved in the game and he should try running the ball past their defence. Bradley took it all on board and with a group huddle, they left the dressing room to be greeted by a wall of noise from the fans.
Ten minutes into the second half, Bradley found himself with the ball just outside the box. He now needed to decide what to do with it. Did he put the striker in with a weighted pass or did he go for glory? He decided to go for it and shimmied around one defender and launched a perfectly placed shot into the corner of the net. GOALLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!! The crowd went wild as Bradley ran to his team mates and high fived all of them looking well pleased with himself.
He looked up to the crowd where he knew his family would be sitting and gave them a wave. When they waved back, the supporters sitting around them asked if they knew this Bradley Gardner and were delighted when Brian pointed to them and said ‘Mum, brother, and I’m his Dad!’ The rest of the second half was spent listening to their new found friends waxing lyrical about their son’s talent.
On the pitch, Celtic tried desperately to get an equaliser but despite coming close in the 89th minute with a shot that ricocheted off the crossbar, they couldn’t manage it and the crowd erupted when the referee blew for full time. Hearts 1 Celtic 0. All the Hearts players rushed over to Bradley to congratulate him as they left the pitch with the crowd chanting his name. Indeed, many of the Celtic players came over to him to shake his hand and say well done. He glanced over to the dugout and noticed the big grin on the manager’s face, then spotted McNair sitting behind him with a scowl on his face.
It took longer than usual for the crowd to disperse after the game, such was the high spirits among the home fans. Martine and Sam waited in the car for Brian to emerge from the Players’ Entrance with Bradley who was met by a crowd of young Hearts supporters all wanting his autograph. Bradley had never signed an autograph in his life, so this was a novel experience for him. Brian looked on proudly as his son chatted with the fans who were vigorously slapping him and congratulating him for his performance.
After half an hour, Brian prised Bradley from the crowd saying he had to go home for his tea now and thanks for your support, he laughed. They got back to the car and got even more slaps on the back and tears of joy from his Mum. The drive home was more animated than usual as Bradley relived every kick and pass, especially the shot that hit the back of the Celtic net to win the game. He was a typical excited sixteen year old who had just made a bit of history.
Monday’s newspapers were all about Bradley. He got a 9 rating out of 10 in every newspaper, including the English ones, and the match report largely focused on his winning goal on his debut. There were some words of caution, journalists had become used to seeing child prodigies arrive on the scene in a blaze of glory only for that potential to be extinguished in the following years when they lose interest and end up playing for Arbroath or Peterhead to supplement their day job.
Bradley had his head screwed on; he knew the perils of losing focus and getting carried away with the fame business. He had no intention of becoming another wasted talent, something his coaches were all in agreement. This boy was something special.