Mark Bradley on following his passion
Injury wrecked Mark Bradley’s playing career at 28, but his professionalism paid dividends when he was forced to give up the game – earning him a new coaching role at Walsall, the club where he turned pro.
Sum up your career before the injuries hit…
I started as young as I can remember. Played school, district and county football and for Wales when I was 16. I was let go by Stoke as a scholar, went to Walsall and made my debut at 17. I went through all the age groups at Wales, getting my international cap at 21. I got quite a few games at U21 before that. I loved playing for Wales, the manager had a lot of faith in me and I loved playing with top players.
Did you start your education when you first had a cruciate problem?
No. It was more my parents, especially my mum, who always pushed me to get something under my belt. And Oshor [Williams] at the PFA – he said ‘you never know what might happen’. I started studying for my sports science degree about a year and a half before I got my first injury.
How close were you to a playing return for Rotherham?
I had 18 months of rehab on my knee. I was close to coming back but when it struck home that maybe I wouldn’t, I needed to pay the bills. That’s when I did a six-week personal trainer course, which meant I could get into a gym and earn money. That was the hardest part, going from earning money to no money. Gym and fitness was the best transition for me.
How did you come across the sports science degree?
The club gave me the talk about ‘what if’ but I put it off for a couple of years and then one year, luckily, I said ‘I need to do something – let’s go!’ It was Osh and the PFA that pointed me in the right direction and I have a lot to thank them for.
How difficult was it to step up to study a degree?
I embraced it. Every afternoon after training I came home to the iPad. It’s a bit weird because when you’re finished playing you haven’t got that much to do, so I was kind of filling time with something useful.
Did you warm to distance learning?
I think it’s good to do alongside working, but I’m one of those who’s not great on his own, I prefer to be told something face-to-face.
You’re now working for the coaching team at Walsall, how did your return come about?
Oshor called me and said there might be a sports science role I could do alongside studying for my degree. A week later Walsall manager John Whitney called me to say a position had become available. I had been waiting for a way back into football so it was perfect timing. John was the physio when I was a player at Walsall, he knew how I worked.
He says you have an infectious personality and motivate people. Is that fair?
I think so. When I was a player I was as professional as I could be. And I love the fitness side, so if you’re passionate you get that across to others.
How important was your conduct as a player for your future career?
The gaffer said my work ethic and professionalism 10 years ago had a big influence on him getting me back here. It’s always good to make a good impression and you never know who’s watching and what can happens in the future from it.
How did you make such a positive impression?
I did everything I could to improve my all-round game. And everything I could to help the team, to recover, to eat well. I gave 100% for everything and was always motivated. If I was told to do something, I did it!
What is your primary role at Walsall?
Strength and conditioning and sports science. They class me as strength and conditioning coach.
Does your experience of treatment and rehab, the mental and physical challenges, help in your role?
Yeah, definitely. The main reason the gaffer wanted me to be a part of it is that I’d been through it. I know the game and as an ex-player I understand the mental side of it. When I first introduced myself to the players I got their respect straight away because I’d played at a decent level.
Did the players sympathise with you because of your own story?
When you retire at 28 you’re not looking for sympathy, but you can portray how lucky they are to be still playing at 30. Mentally that helps. I always say to the lads ‘you never know when it’s your last game’. They may be thinking what I was thinking: ‘well, I’ve never been properly injured before…’
You must have been to some dark places because of the injuries, can you use that to motivate players?
Yeah. It’s the hardest thing a professional player can go through. Even just the financial part of it, which is massive because you go from paying your bills like a normal person and you’re not a Premier League millionaire who can quit and not worry. You haven’t got that backup. If you don’t have that you’re going to struggle. It’s definitely the hardest part.
Is it important to practice what you preach as a fitness coach and hit the gym?
Massively. I’m one of those who loves the gym, loves joining in. A big unfit bloke telling you to do something – you’re not going to listen as much! If the players can see that passion to do it, it definitely helps.
What advice would you give players?
You never know what’s going to happen so you need to have a Plan B to help you in case the worst does happen. And do something you’re interested in and that is sustainable. You want to follow your passion, so don’t do maths if it’s not for you.
Is it important that you don’t chase the money?
It’s never really for money. There’s nothing better for me than being in a football club. I love the environment. That’s all I’ve known since I was 16, so if I can do something in a club I will do it. I couldn’t work in an office – I’d be doing press ups off the wall.
Mark rubbed shoulders with the generation of Welsh players who made headlines at Euro 2016. He played with stars like Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey and earned 17 U21 caps before stepping up to the full-team squad.
His single cap came against Croatia in 2010. Following years of injuries he eventually had to resign himself to watching his former team-mates grab the glory as he bowed out of the game.
“I probably would have given myself a good chance of playing at the Euros. I was a bit gutted, watching it thinking I could be there. It was a bittersweet experience because playing for Wales was the best thing I did.
“Playing with better players always improves you – looking at what they do on and off the pitch, how they prepare. We had Ramsey and Bale and when I went away with the first team you watch how they conduct themselves. You don’t mirror them but pick out their best bits. The big one is the work ethic.”
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