Jurgen Klopp was enjoying some much-needed rest and relaxation in Dubai during the recent winter break when he was approached by a bloke in a flowery shirt. It was a Bolton fan begging the Liverpool manager to allow Conor Bradley back on loan to the League One side.
‘Too late,’ came the response from Klopp, sporting a ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ cap which he made a point to put on to wind up a Manchester United fan asking for a photo. And ‘too late’ was the gist of most responses to clubs who came knocking for Bradley in the summer, too.
After scoring five goals and notching up five assists from right back at the third-tier club, Klopp and his coaching staff had seen enough to conclude that Bradley was to play a pivotal role in this new iteration of the Reds’ team which the German manager dubbed ‘Liverpool 2.0’.
Bradley was the name on everyone’s lips in a pre-season camp in Bavaria with pleasing performances against Karlsruher and Greuther Furth - but that was the last sight of him until the turn of the year, with the 20-year-old missing more than four months with a back injury.
Now he is the name on everyone’s lips, not just those in the Kop who chanted his name multiple times in a man-of-the-match performance against billionaire boys Chelsea on Wednesday night. He scored a goal, assisted two more and put in an imperious defensive display at the other end.
Conor Bradley's displays at Bolton convinced Jurgen Klopp he could play a role at Liverpool
Klopp posed for a picture with the fan on holiday after he had cheekily requested that Bradley be returned to Bolton
Bradley produced a man of the match display in Liverpool's crushing 4-1 victory over Chelsea
That was his fifth start in a row for the Reds and now there is a genuine debate over whether he should keep the shirt for a season-defining trip to Arsenal on Sunday over Trent Alexander-Arnold. The fact that is even a debate at all is testament to Bradley’s abilities.
Indeed, in a straw poll of Liverpool fans on this reporter’s social media, in which around 1,000 readers voted, 55 per cent said that Bradley should get the nod over Alexander-Arnold, the vice-captain and creator-in-chief of the Premier League leaders.
Bradley’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric. But how did he get from a young lad playing on park pitches in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland to the man that is turning out star performances in the best league in the world?
No one is better placed to chart the youngster’s rise than Joe McAree, a legend of the Northern Irish football scene now in his late 70s. ‘I actually was the man who was told about him first of all by a referee who came from Conor’s hometown of Castlederg,’ McAree tells Mail Sport.
‘He told me he’s the best kid he’s ever seen and we should get him down to our youth setup at Dungannon. He was eight years old so I laughed and, well… the road from Castlederg to Dungannon is an awful drive - like a snake’s pass.
‘I said I’m not gonna take an eight-year-old and drive him up and down that road three times a week… but thought I would keep an eye out for him. About three years later one of my coaches asked me to go to a wee final in Omagh one night - it was St Patrick’s against another team.
‘He said, “There’s this wee boy called Bradley playing, he’s playing two or three years above his age group”. I laughed. So I drove to Omagh, watched the final. Conor was playing centre forward - two feet shorter than everybody else and two or three years younger.
‘I spotted his parents and, after the game, introduced myself and invited him down to Dungannon. I spoke to him in the wee cafe we had and he said, “We’ll have a think about it and come back to you”.’
Liverpool fans are debating whether Trent Alexander-Arnold or Bradley should start against Arsenal
Bradley has been tipped to become one of the best players to come from Northern Ireland
Both Bradley and Jarell Quansah, right, have been huge beneficiaries of the loan market
Bradley actually rejected the approach but realised he’d made the wrong decision a few months later. Fast-forward a few years, Dungannon Swifts got a call from Liverpool, who sent two scouts over to check out the facilities at the club, which has spent £2million on the youth setup.
He spent time going back and forth to Merseyside and seasoned academy observers say he is a down-to-earth, quiet lad but a studious professional. ‘Conor and I have been mates the whole way through,’ Tyler Morton, a Liverpool loanee at Hull City, tells Mail Sport.
‘He has turned into a real top player. Everyone at the academy knew he would. Jarell (Quansah) as well, he’s been absolutely brilliant - I’ve grown up with him and trained with him since I was six or seven. It’s lovely to see them do well and represent the club that I love and support.’
Bradley and Quansah have been huge beneficiaries of the loan market, with the latter spending half of last season at Bristol Rovers, also in League One, and now featuring in 17 first-team matches this term.
One of the themes of Klopp’s reign has been how he always looks at the academy for solutions rather than asking the owners to open the chequebook. The other day, he cited how assistant coaches Pep Lijnders and Vitor Matos had been ‘in his ear’ for years to promote Bradley.
When deciding where to send young stars, Liverpool put a lot of weight into how much they trust the club. After developing Bradley, for example, the Reds chose the Lancashire club to send Calvin Ramsay this month. Fabio Carvalho went to Hull due to their fine work with Morton.
‘Conor has an insatiable desire to keep getting better and that is why I know he will go on to play hundreds of games for Liverpool,’ said Bolton boss Ian Evatt, talking to The Times this week. Indeed, it is hard to find anyone willing to say a bad word about him.
Nearly everyone asked to talk about him will use the same words or phrases to describe the 20-year-old: humble, talented and driven. Mum Linda is undoubtedly a big influence, with her acting as an unofficial agent for her son since his early days in football.
She was not much of a football fan but has a solid education now having been his taxi driver and negotiated his deals for a decade. It is understood Mrs Bradley rejected the ‘promise’ of a professional deal at 17, instead telling Conor to earn his contract through a scholarship.
Klopp revealed his assistants had been pushing for Bradley to be promoted to the first team
Former Northern Irish boxer Carl Frampton said Bradley could be the best footballer to come from the nation since George Best. Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but it shows the supreme levels in which this kid is rated. McAree namechecks another football legend alongside Bradley.
‘The people at Liverpool know a lot more about football than me,’ adds McAree, whose son Rodney was on the Reds’ books in the 90s. ‘But I will say this: whenever someone decides to put him in the Steven Gerrard role, you’ll have an even better player… that’s all I’ll say!
‘He’s a talented boy, with a great attitude. From the first day I met him in the cafe, he looked me in the eye and smiled, it just felt different. For an 11-year-old boy it was just different, the focus he had. He knew what he wanted to be, he was a Liverpool supporter.
‘This boy can get from box to box like a reindeer, tremendous stamina, he can thread passes into places where you wouldn’t know were there. I’m waiting patiently for him to move to midfield and be the next Gerrard. It’s a fairytale. He must think he has died and gone to heaven!’
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