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How a Tyrone teen sensation earned professional Liverpool contract after joining Academy aged nine

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Another step up the mountain, another new height reached but more acclimatisation to be done.

Come July 9, when he turns 17, Castlederg teenager Conor Bradley is set to put pen to paper on a three-year professional contract at English champions-elect Liverpool.

It's recognition of his successful first year on a scholarship deal and another move in the direction of the ultimate dream; to play for the first team.

"The one thing I tell kids at this stage," says scout Cliff Ferguson, who brought Bradley into the Academy aged nine, "and I've said it to Conor two or three times, is that you're on Mount Everest and you're just moving up another bit to try and get to the top."

Jumping straight from a scholarship deal into such a lengthy contract, Ferguson admits, is tracking to the summit at a faster rate than most.

"A three year deal is a bit of a statement, it speaks for itself really," he continued. "But if there's any kid that will take things in his stride it's Conor."

It has been a rollercoaster of a first campaign at the Reds, since his initial signing last summer, when the teenager was struggling to even process what was happening.

"It's a bit overwhelming that I'm going to join the club that I support," he told the Belfast Telegraph shortly before flying over to begin full-time life at Kirkby. "Hopefully I can take it all in my stride."

It's fair to say he did.

By the time the campaign came to an abrupt halt, he had established himself as a regular starter for the Under 18s and even made two appearances for the club's Under 23 squad.

It all comes as little surprise to Ferguson, the man who IFA Primary School Coach Steafan Deery first approached back in 2012, with a view to giving Bradley a chance at the club he supports.

"Conor was really, really easy to identify," Ferguson says. "He's a great mover - a really athletic kid.

"The players' talent gets them to Liverpool, that's a given, but the rest is down to attitude and Conor's will to win stood out even at nine years old. That's the best thing for me.

"He initially came into our group of under nines, tens and elevens but it wasn't long before we had to move him up and play him in with the older kids, Under 12s and 13s, because the lad needs a challenge. He's not happy unless you're really pushing him.

"If he felt things were too easy, he wasn't long in letting you know. That real work ethic, the mentality and the attitude, it beats ability. Of course he has plenty of talent, but his attitude is top class."

Bradley, although versatile, has made his home at right-back with the Reds. As has been widely noted under Jurgen Klopp, full-backs Andy Robertson and, in particular, Trent Alexander-Arnold have become key to the boss' style of play.

"These days, full-backs are told to get up the pitch in line with the striker. It suits Conor lovely, running onto things. If there's space, that's when he hurts teams," continues Ferguson.

"Where I maybe took Conor for granted is tactically. He's excellent. He takes information on board and makes himself a better player.

"He's really, really good that way. He must be a manager's dream because he does everything and fulfils his role to the letter."

Bradley could, over the course of his soon-to-be-signed professional deal, become the first Northern Irishman to play a competitive game for the Reds' senior side since Sammy Smyth in 1954.

It would be a landmark day for Ferguson and for the club's development centre based at Civil Service, Stormont.

Since Smyth last played at Anfield, as many as 24 Northern Irish players have represented old rivals Manchester United, including the likes of George Best, Keith Gillespie and, most recently, Ethan Galbraith.

It's an issue for Liverpool - a city with such rich Irish heritage - and Ferguson has been striving to put it right.

"I made a case to the staff at Liverpool that if we had a development centre then we could compete with United," he explains.

"So we've had it going for 12 years now. We get the kids in for a few hours on a Friday, borrowing them from their clubs really. Stefan Seaton is the head coach. He's well renowned and has done really well, especially with the likes of Conor.

"We're a bit like good cop, bad cop. I'm just the one who stands on the sidelines and has a bit of craic with them, tries to get to know them. Stefan has a learning plan for them and and is working hard with them.

"The only rules we have are that the kids enjoy themselves, look forward to coming and aren't afraid to make mistakes."

Once they arrive, it's a case of selecting players that, like Conor, could make the grade in the ultra-competitive world of the club's Kirkby Academy base.

"We're always in close contact with the staff at Liverpool, writing match reports, player reports and player profiles so they know the players that are doing well. It's all documented," he explained.

"Once a player does really well, I make a case and hopefully they go over on trial. Charlie Allen, who is joining Leeds from Linfield, was the last one we had over.

"What the players are looking for from there is to be asked back.

"Conor got that and every time he went over, he was getting better and better and better.

"I think the big thing for him, the statement piece, was winning Player of the Tournament when he went to Barcelona for a tournament.

"From there, they made it clear they really liked him. And that was with the full Academy staff there. When I was over, they were all stopping and asking me about him. They like him."

Ferguson began working with the club in 2001 after bringing his Dungoyne Youth squad over for a tournament and was employed in an official capacity in 2004.

Since 2012, he has been in charge of the club's development pathways throughout Ireland, playing a key role in the signings of defender Conor Masterson, who was on the bench for the 2018 Champions League quarter-final win over Manchester City, and goalkeeper Caoimhín Kelleher, who made his debut last season and was named on the bench for the European final.

"You're always worried about them," Ferguson says. "Even when they're in their 20s, it always seems like they're 10 or 11 to me. My motto is and always has been that people are more important than football. I play a very small part in their careers but it's a great interest."

It has now been 66 years since a Northern Irishman played for Liverpool but Conor Bradley is one step closer to the summit, and Cliff Ferguson is hoping to send more climbers close behind.

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