Teenager Conor Bradley has said his “mad” first year with Liverpool and Northern Ireland has made him a better player and person.
The versatile 18-year-old made his senior international debut last May, despite having never played a senior game at club level.
Since then he has earned another five NI caps, making his second competitive start in last week’s Nations League defeat by Greece, and played Champions League football among five Liverpool appearances.
“It’s been a mad year for me personally being called up to the [Northern Ireland] senior team this time last year and then starting against Greece, “Bradley said.
“I just try and take all that in my stride and keep working hard, and keep doing what I usually do.
“I’m thankful to Ian [Baraclough, NI manager] for giving me my chance, my debut and a couple of starts and I’ll continue to keep my head down.
“I’m developing both as a person and as a footballer which is the main thing for me. I feel I have come on leaps and bounds over the last year and hopefully I can do something similar from now until next year.”
Playing at Anfield ‘a thing of dreams’
In September, four months after winning that first international cap, boyhood Liverpool fan Bradley made his senior club debut when he came on for the Premier League giants in a Carabao Cup win away to Norwich.
He got his Anfield debut in the same competition when they beat Leicester on penalties after a 3-3 draw in December, having also come on as a late substitute in a Champions League win over AC Milan at the San Siro.
“It really was a dream come true when I stepped out on to the pitch and heard all the fans singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’,” the Castlederg native continued.
“It was a thing of dreams. Coming on in Europe for my Champions League debut was also very special. That was pretty mad. It was a wonderful night and I was thankful to Jurgen for giving me the chance.
“Everyone knows all about the manager. He helps you so much. He does not make you feel nervous or anything. All he wants to do is help you and try and make you better.
“He talks about different things tactically and how to play in and out of possession, and he really has helped me massively since I’ve been working with the first team.”
Bradley ‘a really big talent’ – Klopp
While Bradley has spoken highly of the impact Klopp has had on his career, the Liverpool manager has also spoken previously of his excitement at the progress the 18-year-old is making at Anfield.
“He’s a top boy, we love having him around here,” Klopp said.
“He is a young talent with a lot of time and space to improve, but the level he has reached is already very impressive.
“He is part of a group of young players that we have here that we are really excited about. I have spoken to the international coach about him, everyone is careful but excited as well. Everything will be good in the future, I am sure .
“We should stay calm. The only thing that young players do not need is hassle around them. Let him grow and develop, and let him do that here [with Liverpool].
“We will take care that everything will be fine because he is a really big talent and we are really excited about his future.”
Bradley looks up to Davis and Evans
Versatile Bradley’s appearances for Northern Ireland so far have been at right back or at right wing-back, though, having played as a forward for Dungannon Youth, he has also played in midfield for Liverpool.
He and his Northern Ireland team-mates are preparing for an important Nations League match away to Kosovo on Thursday night.
Baraclough and his players will be hoping to make up for two disappointing performances and results – a 1-0 defeat at home to Greece and a 0-0 draw in Cyprus – in their opening two matches.
As he prepares for the game, Bradley spoke of how much he is learning from working alongside the Liverpool first-team squad, and NI captain Steven Davis and defender Jonny Evans in the international panel.
“You learn the sacrifices they make, how hard they work to be the best they can be,” he observed.
“You pick up pieces about their positioning and different ways they defend and different ways they can cross the ball.
“Being up training and working with them is going to help me and keep making me better and better.
“I have looked up to Steven and Jonny since I was a child and to be part of the same team as them is unbelievable.
“I keep trying to learn as much as I can and take little bits from them and take that into my game.”