RYAN Bradley sat staring out the side of the bus as it crawled through the Clones cavalcade.
Revellers start to fall out the doors of the Creighton Hotel, embracing the hill in front of them and the dreams of the day they’d mapped out in their sleep.
The sea of yellow and white climbs the town against the tide. This was a forgotten journey to Donegal people for a generation, but Ulster finals have become an annual pilgrimage since Jim the Messiah took over.
It’s Monaghan again, for the second of what would be three finals in a row.
But Bradley isn’t sitting at the back-left window as he always did, with the card school of Neil Gallagher, Colm McFadden, Rory Kavanagh, the two McGees and Frank McGlynn.
There’s no Garda escort this time.
Instead, he’s on a bus with his friends from Buncrana. They’re just on their way in when the phone rings.
Paul McGonigle’s name flashes up. He’s on the other bus.
‘Jim wants you to come down to the changing room to see the lads before the game. You don’t have to speak, just be there’.
“I had a few beers on board. I said ‘Jeez, Paul, I’m out of the scene, that’s not really for me’. But he said Jim wanted me down.
“I found it very awkward but I did it anyway. I wouldn’t say no because I’ve all the time in the world for Jim. He gave me my Donegal career.
“I did feel like a spare prick standing in the changing room though,” he laughs.
Eleven months previous, he’d trudged off the Croke Park pitch knowing that his time with Donegal was probably up.
David Walsh came on for him at half-time as they looked for ways to force an improbable rescue from 2-11 to 0-4 down to Mayo. It only got worse.
He was just 28, and had only been a first-teamer for three years, but back as early as that February, he and wife Claire had made the decision that they’d try something new.
The team holiday after winning the 2012 All-Ireland had taken them to Dubai. When they were there, they hopped on over to Qatar to see her brother, John, and his family for a week.
“We had a great time, we liked it. We went back home and that January was just f***ing wind and rain for two months.
“We just said to ourselves one day ‘what are we at? We’re just married a year, let’s go out and give Qatar a try, even for three months’.”
He went through the 2013 campaign and kept it to himself. But when the house of cards collapsed in a repeat of the previous year’s final, Bradley had more than half a notion that it would be the last time he’d kick a ball for Donegal.
* * * * *
“In mediocrity, the best of a very poor bunch was Ryan Bradley from Donegal.”
– Pat Spillane
THIS was one of Donegal’s lost souls, plucked from purgatory.
Ryan Bradley’s natural attributes had helped him stand out above the crowd when he was growing up.
Buncrana, like large parts of Donegal, could be viewed as soccer country.
He turned into adulthood having worn the gold and green all the way up but played as much in the Inishowen League, dreaming of emulating his all-conquering Old Trafford heroes.
Maybe it was the fact that he was just good at it. The natural poise, the ability to sell a dummy, to catch a ball effortlessly, the power to crash through walls.
You could see why Donegal wanted him. Why Brian McEniff had him there in the background in 2005. Big things were expected.
Yet it would be six years and the famous summer of 2011 before his first Championship start in a Donegal jersey.
Different perspectives coloured the day different shades. For Tír Chonaill, any sort of a win was more than welcome. They’d been humbled by Antrim in Ballybofey two years previous and hadn’t won a first round Ulster Championship game since 2007.
You’d be trawling hard at your mind’s archive or else lying if you said there was ever an easier-recalled man of the match from a first round, nondescript, pretty woeful first round Ulster Championship game.
In a summer of Pat Spillane barbs – the apocalypse and Shi’ite football, to name some others – the night-time declaration that Bradley was ‘the best of a very poor bunch’ wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of his performance.
Donegal were nobody’s favourites for much before they beat Antrim by six points, and fancied by even fewer after a game the nation watched through a squint.
A nervous-looking Bradley was pulled out for the RTÉ cameras, given his piece of solid crystal. His answers fired off, the world moved on.
That was until the following evening.
“Jim came in the Monday night and went f***ing mental about them disrespecting me, disrespecting Donegal.”
The manager had taken great offence to the whole skit. Spillane had pretty much dismissed the whole game, and the Donegal manager found an angle he could use in the coming weeks.
Weaponising such perceived slights – and there were others, like Tony Donnelly’s joke about Jim and Rory Gallagher being “in our seats” for the Derry-Armagh semi-final – was something McGuinness did well.
“I didn’t give a f…” he laughs.
“I started my first Ulster Championship game, scored two points, we won the game – didn’t bother me one bit. It was just Jim using it as a weapon.”
He was never inclined to take life too seriously. In a Q&A for the GAA’s website the following year, Bradley said Spillane was his favourite pundit ‘because of the slagging he gave me last year’.
One of those warm summer evenings a couple of years ago Barry O’Sullivan, Bradley’s boss in Doha and a Kerry native, was in a pub in Kenmare when he spotted Pat Spillane in for a pint.
Out came the camera phone. Down the lens, a smiling Pat Spillane knits his two hands together in a comedic, warm plea for forgiveness.
“F*** you deserved man of the match. I take back everything. I take back everything!”
The post-Antrim crystal is still along with all his other memorabilia.
When they were home in 2019, he took the medals, jerseys, awards and the rest out of his parents’ house. He spent a bit of time looking at them, stuffed them into a box and loaded them into the attic in his own house.
In the box are an All-Ireland, two Ulster titles and a Division Two National League medal.
What’s missing, though, is his Division One medal from 2007, when Brian McIver guided Donegal to their a first ever top-tier league title.
He’s never seen it. Doesn’t know where it is, who has it. And not to say that he doesn’t care, but it was never a medal that he truly considered to be his anyway.
“There was an awards do one night, I was away at the time and I don’t know who got my medal from 2007 or where it went.
“I have a Division Two medal from 2011 and that’s more value to me than the Division One medal.
“I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but I played every game in Division Two. I earned that medal. I didn’t contribute to the one in 2007.
“My Donegal career was 2011, ’12 and ’13. I don’t count my Donegal career before that. I didn’t have a Donegal career before that.
“It’s nobody’s fault. It wasn’t mine or nobody else’s.”
* * * * *
DOHA has managed to carve out some normality in the heart of this pandemic.
It’s heading back into lockdown now but those have been brief and infrequent. Construction sites haven’t been closed for a single day.
Last week, they spent two nights camping on the beach complete with beers and barbeque.
Ryan Bradley works for a paradox, a de-watering company in the middle of a desert. They pump and extract water from the ground during excavations.
Ryan Bradley enjoying the sun with sons Finlay and Alfie in front of the Doha skyline.
“The ground here is full of salt water. Hard to believe in the desert, but it’s a massive thing out here.”
He and Claire moved out
In June 2019, they quit their jobs – Claire is working as an English teacher – and packed their bags. They figured the adventure had almost been exhausted and it was time to bring the boys home and get them into the Irish schooling system.
“We forgot how bad the f***ing winter was, and we decided after four months we’d had enough. We did another two months at home and came back out here in January.”
It’s not a forever thing. A year, two, three, four, somewhere down the line, they’ll come back to Buncrana. Just not today or tomorrow.
He joined the GAA club when he went over but it was brief.
The joint-decision of the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to close off airspace and the sole land border from Qatar in June 2017 left the fledgling club in limbo, having to travel via Oman to get to games.
With a family and a six-day working week, he wasn’t playing much then anyway.
“Anyway, it’s nine-a-side football, it didn’t really suit me. Short and sharp stuff, I wasn’t really known for that. I was happy enough to hang up the boots,” he laughs.
Short and sharp wasn’t his game, but when Jim McGuinness took over in late 2010, there were few who could have told you definitively what his game was.
The talent was hanging out of him. He was a 15-and-a-half stone unit with the ability to kick off both feet. A blocklayer by trade, someone who was already friends with strength and an enemy of conditioning.
But he hadn’t started a championship game for Donegal.
Brian McEniff, Brian McIver and John Joe Doherty all looked his way and saw past him to someone else.
To put it in a nutshell, he wasn’t that fond of training.
“Never liked it. Still don’t. I’ll train for a month now and I’ll stop again for a month, put on a stone, go back and get it off.
“I never put in the effort, to be honest with you.
“Under Brian McIver, a few of us were put on a list where we had six weeks to prove our fitness or we’d be gone off the panel.
“That was on a Sunday and I took the hump a bit, a bit immature, and rang him on the Monday to say I was leaving. I said I was concentrating on work and wouldn’t have time. It didn’t bother me either.
“You never, ever thought you were gonna win something with Donegal.”
Jim McGuinness pulled together a panel of triallists and threw them in against Donegal U21s. Bradley did ‘ok’.
A second game at a pitch opening in Dunfanaghy led to a meeting at McGuinness’ house in Creeslough beforehand.
That afternoon changed Ryan Bradley’s whole outlook on football.
“It’s just the person. The man. The way he talked to you, the way he’d tell you things.
“You believe what he’s telling you. He makes you believe it. That was in October 2010, he told me in his house that morning ‘I guarantee you we’re gonna win the Ulster title next year, and the All-Ireland, if not next year then the following year. Do you want to be part of that?’
“I’d never heard any manager talk like that before, go into that detail. He made you believe. There was something different and everyone bought into it.”
Christmas in Qatar for Ryan Bradley, wife Claire and sons Finlay and Alfie
Gym programmes had become the norm in previous regimes, but not for him. He’d be given a sheet to fill out and he’d pluck the numbers out of thin air and hand it back. The natural size of him, nobody questioned it.
McGuinness wanted a-stone-and-a-half off him. He trained five or six days a week. Down by the shorefront, out by Ned’s Point, he’d run the same path around Buncrana’s back roads.
He’d go to the gym in Letterkenny with team-mates twice a week to train with Adam Spier. McGuinness would randomly pop in to see how all was going. He rang Bradley at least once a week, every week.
“It was totally different strength. Lift this on a building site? No problem. But lifting the weights was totally different. It was all leg weights, shoulder work, stuff I never knew about. It brought me on 30, 40 per cent.”
There were half a dozen who came back for the start of 2012 needing to trim again, and he was among them. They were the ‘Fat Club’, and they had to train every day before training.
Bawling a team-mate out of it, speaking back to the referee in training, meant 70 press-ups for everyone.
And every single night, no matter if training had been two hours long, McGuinness would call: ‘Right lads, line up on the 45’.
“Everyone’s like ‘f*** sake Jim, come on’. We had to line up on the 45, go back towards the endline, around the back of the goal, up the other sideline and finish again on the 45. We had to do eight or ten or twelve of those sprints, at the end of training most nights.
“And he never counted the first one! Ever. ‘That’s too slow lads, pick it up or I won’t count it’. There was nothing wrong with it, it was just him saying ‘bust your balls’.”
Bradley cut two stone, before putting a bit of muscle back on.
He was 14st 1lb on his very best days, and that cloaked him with the same sense of invincibility that would eventually grow to cover the whole outfit as they conquered the land.
* * * * *
THAT summer of 2014, he’d come home for a few weeks. The whole spring long, McGuinness had been in his ear. They’d get him work, do what needed to be done, just come home and play.
He won’t say he wasn’t tempted but as the weeks passed, the fitness faded and the promise he and Claire had made to each other that they’d go out to the Middle East and give it a proper go all rang too loudly to hear Jim’s plea.
The bare facts would tell you Ryan Bradley’s Donegal career spanned nine years and four different managers.
His own truth is that it was the first three years of Jim McGuinness’ reign, and no more.
Twenty consecutive championship starts, an All-Ireland, two Ulsters and a Division Two league medal out of it was a fair return.
Three years out of a lifetime of potential seems so little. Is it enough to make him happy?
“Happy?! Pfft. Over the moon! Never in my wildest dreams did I think…
“I wouldn’t have two Ulster medals, a Division Two medal and an All-Ireland medal without Jim McGuinness.
“If Jim didn’t come in in 2010, I probably would never have played for Donegal again. He was the right person to talk to me. He believed in me.
“For somebody to tell me ‘you’re gonna play this role for me, I won’t guarantee you it but if you put in the effort and do what I want you to do, I’ll give you every chance’.
“I’m the big winner out of it.”