From patrolling the streets of Northern Ireland to steering the Hawks to potential new heights

The wretched early-morning alarm calls inevitably heightened bristling animosity.

Saturday, 21st April 2018, 10:30 am
Hawks boss Lee Bradbury

Already warily eyeballed as intruders by some, breaching family homes in 5am raids did little to dissipate the stigma.

Northern Ireland neighbourhoods, where the width of a road could separate disparate worlds.

For two years Lee Bradbury patrolled those County Tyrone streets. As a soldier he represented a prominent and often inflammatory armed presence scrutinising for terrorist activity in Omagh and Strabane.

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The teenage infantryman in the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment secured an honorable discharge in August 1995 following a successful Pompey trial. Football beckoned.

It was a fresh career path which subsequently embraced a club-record £3.5m switch to Manchester City, England under-21 recognition, three divisional titles and 572 appearances yielding 105 goals.

Such a grounding in the services embodies an interloper in modern-day football, yet has been pivotal towards constructing the fortitude behind the doggedly-ambitious Bradbury.

Now aged 42, the former Bournemouth manager stands on the brink of masterminding the Hawks reaching the National League.

Remarkable progress for a club formed in 1998 – and a boss borne from the army.

‘I was brought up on a council estate on the Isle of Wight, joined the army in the infantry and it was tough. You have to be tough, otherwise you will fall away,’ said Bradbury.

‘You can’t be weak in that job, you can’t be an infantryman if you are not tough, you have to be strong mentally and physically. I think that has carried on throughout my career and given me the status I am now in terms of management.

‘I joined the army two days before my 16th birthday, I was a boy soldier in the infantry. It was scary in Northern Ireland, I had to be 18 before allowed onto the streets and was there for two months before my birthday, just waiting.

‘Everybody was going out, coming back and making out it was more dramatic than it was to wind me up. As a young kid it was “I don’t really fancy this” and a bit hairy, we had a few things going on out there, life-learning things, and I wouldn’t change it.

‘On patrol, we’d look for terrorist activity, searching buildings and houses, generally seeking weapons or bomb-making equipment.

‘We would turn up 5am at people’s houses, knocking down doors. A search team would go into the house, while I was among the corden stood outside the property to make sure no-one went in to harm the soldiers. Nobody wants to be woken up at 5am by a group of soldiers.

‘On other occasions we would be on patrol. You could cross the road and come to one estate and it would be quite hostile. You could cross the road back into another estate and be offered cups of tea and slices of cake.

‘Dogs on one side of the road attacking you, dogs on the other side would be okay.

‘Kids would chuck stuff at us. Quite a lot of the time in Strabane they threw milk bottles full of paint, which would explode in front of you, getting all over your kit and a right pain to remove.

‘In general, it could be very hostile depending on the time of night and what day it was.

‘For instance, on Fridays and Saturdays people would be out drinking and having a good time, only for you to stop and search them in the street. It doesn’t always go down well.

‘We had vehicle checkpoints where you’d halt cars, searching for bombs and weapons, looking for people attempting to import stuff from one place to another.

‘I suppose if you are in a rush, the last thing you want is to be stopped by people like us. I understand why it could get people’s backs up, especially the majority of innocent people.’

On occasions, Bradbury would sleep in a 10ft by 10ft room, with three sets of bunk beds stacked to the ceiling to accommodate nine army tenants.

As one of the better shots, the Cowes teenager performed Northern Ireland patrols equipped with a light support weapon (LSW) – a rifle with a heavier barrel accompanied by a tripod – and occasionally carried a general-purpose machine gun (GPMG).

Shifts consisted of eight-hours, involving walking through fields and towns before being collected at a rendezvous point by helicopter and returned to their Omagh base.

Bradbury’s profession also enabled him to encounter Diana, Princess of Wales, who visited the regiment which bore her name.

He added: ‘I met Lady Diana once. I had just moved to Northern Ireland and she would come round and inspect, talking to us.

‘She said: “Hello young man, how old are you?” I replied “17, m’am”.

‘She responded: “You’re in Northern Ireland, how does your mum feel about that?”

‘I said: “She’s not too happy”. It was true, my dad and nan signed the papers because my mum refused, she insisted if anything ever happened to me she couldn’t have it on her conscience.

‘Lady Diana replied: “I don’t know how I would feel if my boys were at war”. That has always stuck with me because both her boys later served their country.

‘Everybody remembers the day she died. I had played for Manchester City at Charlton and woke up the Sunday morning to hear the news. It was a strange feeling for me, I had been in her regiment, I’d met her the once, then that happened.

‘I think it’s all calmed over a little bit in Northern Ireland nowadays, a different age, a different era, and it was always going to take an era to change. A lot of people were brought up with it and didn’t know any better.

‘I never had to fire my gun, there were a couple of close shaves, but have never shot anyone or been shot at.

‘There were hairy moments, though, getting into situations where you were thinking: “We might get attacked here”.

‘It made me grow up pretty quick.’

Private Bradbury would go on to make 167 appearances and score 46 times for Pompey over two spells in a career which also consisted of Manchester City, Exeter, Crystal Palace, Birmingham, Sheffield Wednesday, Derby, Walsall, Oxford United, Southend and Bournemouth.

It was at Dean Court where he announced his retirement in January 2011, having been handed the caretaker reins following the departure of Eddie Howe for Burnley.

Appointed permanently later that month, he steered the Cherries into the League One play-offs, where they lost out on penalties to Huddersfield the semi-final stage.

Since October 2012, Bradbury has been at the Hawks’ helm and the former infantryman has three matches in eight days to secure a second-successive promotion to add to an inimitable CV.

The Westleigh Park boss said: ‘My passion for football originated while growing up in Cowes. I wanted to be a footballer and wrote to every Football League club, including Pompey, for a trial, but only Southampton replied!

‘Still, wanting to be active and do something off the Isle of Wight, I decided to join the army.

‘If anything, I was trying to use it as a stepping stone, trying to get seen as a footballer by playing in the Combined Services – which is how it panned out.

‘As a private, I was asked a couple of times to go onto a course to improve my rank, but for one thing or another, mainly football, I never took it. I wasn’t too fussed, I had it in my head I only wanted to do three-to-four years anyway.

‘I often came back from Northern Ireland to play for East Cowes and one day used every mode of transport to get home. There was a helicopter from Omagh to Belfast, from Belfast I flew back, got the train to Southampton, the bus from the train station to the ferry, which I then caught to the Isle of Wight, and finally a car to get to the game.

‘I arrived 10 minutes before kick-off and scored twice in a 2-0 win! Funnily enough, the manager was Del Young, whose son Ryan currently plays in goal for us at the Hawks!

‘Patrolling in Northern Ireland for eight hours at a time, you are carrying weight on your back, walking through the fields and towns built me up, it was what I needed.

‘Certainly I wouldn’t change it, it makes me appreciate football every day.’