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Opposite the main stand at Finn Park there often stands a tall unassuming gentleman watching intently from the terrace as Finn Harps’ players toil for precious League of Ireland points, roared on by the hardy souls open to the elements at the North West venue.
The interested onlooker’s concentration will occasionally be disrupted by a warm handshake from a passer-by while youngsters scurry towards the low hum of a generator beside the chip van accompanying the smell of fried onions wafting its way through the damp air.
Brendan Bradley is a frequent visitor to Ballybofey but as a consequence of the era he played in many of those inside Finn Park are oblivious to the fact that the greatest goalscorer in League of Ireland history stands among them.
“People would recognise me a bit when I’m at some of the games,” Bradley shyly admits. “Particularly the older generation and even about the city here, the football people would recognise me and know me for what I have done.”
The city he refers to is his hometown of Derry, where he began and ended a glorious goal-scoring career that included spells at Athlone Town and Sligo Rovers, as well as a stint at Lincoln City in the old English Fourth Division.
A 17-year career yielded over 300 goals and, with 235 coming in the League of Ireland, Bradley remains untouchable at the top of the domestic goal-scoring charts.
It was fitting that the Republic of Ireland’s greatest international marksman Robbie Keane presented Bradley with a special award at the annual Soccer Writers Association of Ireland gathering in Dublin recently.
While both men shared a talent for finding the back of the net, they are also linked by the fact that Keane’s cousin Jason Byrne is the only man likely to threaten Bradley’s standing as the domestic game’s all-time record league scorer. The Cabinteely man needs 14 more goals to equal Bradley’s total.
The one hundred pound man
It was the princely sum of £100 that secured the services of a raw 19-year-old in 1969 when Bradley first caught the eye of Harps manager Patsy McGowan, who was leading the club into its first season as a senior outfit in League of Ireland football.
“I wasn’t really getting into the Derry City team when Patsy saw me playing in a summer competition and afterwards he came over and asked me would I be interested in joining,” said Bradley, who netted 181 league goals for the Donegal club.
“He took a chance on me but he saw something and he said ‘that’s my centre forward’. Patsy’s strength was that he was a players’ manager.
“He wasn’t stand-offish and was very hands-on doing things around the club. Often he would even drive the minibus to games but he still managed to put together some great teams at Finn Harps.”
Bradley was the undoubted spearhead of those great sides that included the likes of Tony O’Doherty, Charlie Ferry, Peter Hutton and Jim Sheridan.
A goal on debut in a 3-3 Shield draw against Dundalk was a precursor to the big striker topping the league goal-scoring charts with 18 as Harps secured a top-half finish in their first season in the big-time.
Twenty league goals followed the season after, while Bradley fired the only goal of the game in the 1972 Dublin City Cup final against Cork Hibernians. That match saw Harps win their first silverware only three years after entering the senior ranks.
When Lincoln City manager David Herd was on the look-out for a striker he persuaded Harps to part with their talisman for a sum of £6,000 in July 1972. Herd had taken the reins at Sincil Bank following a brief spell at Waterford United and was well aware of Bradley’s knack of finding the net.
Twelve goals before Christmas testified to the fact that Bradley was easily adapting to life in the professional game, but it was a different story off the pitch.
“I wasn’t really happy and when you’re not happy, I think it affects your performance on the pitch,” said Bradley. “People ask me am I sorry I didn’t stay and I suppose in one way I am but there was a big feeling of homesickness and I was happy to get back home and back to Harps to be honest.”
With Lincoln sitting ninth in December 1972, Herd was surprisingly replaced by the late England manager Graham Taylor and it wasn’t long before Bradley’s wish to return home was granted when he re-joined Harps in March 1973 for £4,000.
Coming home to Harps
However, if the head had ruled the heart, Keane may have been following in the footsteps of the big Derryman at White Hart Lane.
“When I returned to Harps I heard one or two things through the grapevine that Tottenham Hotspur might have had an interest in me but no one at Lincoln said it to me at the time,” reveals Bradley.
“Maybe they didn’t want to let me go. But, if somebody had said to me that Spurs, playing in the First Division, are interested in you and you were going to maybe treble your money then I wouldn’t have been coming home.”
Despite Bradley’s sojourn across the Irish Sea, Finn Harps continued to defy the odds, finishing just a point behind champions Waterford United in 1973, but that disappointment was consigned to the history books just a year later when Bradley bagged two goals as the Ballybofey outfit won the club’s only major honour to date with a 3-1 victory over St Patrick’s Athletic in the 1974 FAI Cup Final at Dalymount Park.
Harps and Bradley continued to shine during that halcyon period for the domestic game in Ireland, with Harps collecting two more sets of league runners-up medals in 1976 and 1978, losing out to Dundalk and Bohemians respectively.
Bradley topped the scoring charts in 1975 and for a record-equalling fourth occasion in 1976, a season which saw him bag all six in a game against Sligo Rovers on his way to 29 in 26 league outings.
“We missed out on a few league titles in that period which maybe we should have won,” reflects Bradley. “But they were great times for football in Donegal. There was great interest in the game and many of the Harps players were heroes for young fellas coming to the matches.”
A brief spell at Athlone Town in 1978-79 was followed by three seasons at Sligo Rovers under the stewardship of McGowan where Bradley once again discovered the goal-scoring touch and picked up a FAI Cup runners-up medal in 1981 before returning to Finn Park a year later, for a third and final spell at his spiritual home, cementing his place as the club’s all-time leading goal-scorer finishing with 241 in total.
Despite hanging up the boots in 1985, Bradley was persuaded to come out of retirement by Derry City manager Noel King to play half-a-season for the Candystripes. They had been admitted to the league in the same year and he helped them to a First Division Shield triumph in 1986.
So what was the secret to his success? “Well, for a start it helps when you’re playing in a fairly decent team and with good players around you it certainly makes it a bit easier,” he humbly protests.
“Even though a lot of people would say I couldn’t run, I had sort of a lazy stride but when the ball was knocked over the back four I was usually on to it and away.
"I think a lot of it too was just instinct and when the ball fell in the penalty area I just knew where to be.”