Stephen Bradley: 'It's AC Milan, but for me I just treat is as the next game'

Stephen Bradley remains, rightly or wrongly, a manager who divides opinion among fans of the League of Ireland.

To his detractors, the Jobstown native is the young coach who was unguarded in his early statements, famously stating ‘it’s their cup final’ ahead of yet another defeat to rivals Bohemians.

Ask a Rovers fan, however, and you’ll hear stories of a local boy who’s bought into the club and has delivered continuous improvement in his four years in charge.

It’s difficult to countenance that the 35-year-old is now the second-longest serving manager in the league, behind Bohs’ Keith Long, such has been his rapid ascent in the game.

Bradley is softly-spoken but firm in his intentions, a level of frankness that can come off as standoffish but certainly isn’t to his players.

The test against a side he describes as 'royalty' will be the biggest test yet of his fledgling managerial career.

When AC Milan manager Stefano Pioli referred to the Hoops as a team that ‘plays good, proactive football, a modern style with a lot of off the ball movement,’ it was a shock in itself.

Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk, right up to the moment they stunned BATE Borisov to reach the Europa League groups, were patronised with the usual tropes of Irish football: big-hearted, British-style football..

That Pioli has taken the opposite approach, and clearly done his homework on Rovers’ style of play, is a credit to the Tallaght man at the helm.

Rovers play exactly the style of football Pioli describes and the transformation of the Hoops since Pat Fenlon was dismissed between two legs of a defeat to Finnish side RoPS has been marked.

There is no question about who plays the best and most progressive football in the League of Ireland and, while Dundalk remain champions, there’s little doubt an 18th title will arrive in Tallaght soon.

Ordinarily, a Europa League draw with a side as storied as AC Milan, the second most successful in European Cup history behind Real Madrid, would be viewed as a pay day but the end of the road.

That Thursday’s game won’t be isn’t entirely down to Bradley, Covid reducing the game to one leg is a factor, but he has assembled a squad who will approach the game with the intent to win.

“It's AC Milan, but for me I just treat it as the next game,” Bradley told the media ahead of one of the biggest games in domestic Irish football history.

“We have to find their strengths, find their weaknesses, and that’s genuinely how I approach it. I don’t get too excited and I don’t get too down on them, it’s just the next game.

“That’s the way I approach it and that’s the way I am in training. Or in the dressing-room. And this is no different. It's going to be fantastic.

“It’s unfortunate we can’t have our fans here. They support us every week and put their hand in their pocket so it’s unfortunate they can’t be here to see it.”

Bradley was a member of Michael O’Neill’s squad when Rovers hosted the first real glamour European tie at Tallaght Stadium.

Juventus comfortably won 2-0, with a goal in each half from De Oliveira Amauri, but that was a Rovers side at a different stage in their development.

The following season, without Bradley, they would go on to reach the group stages – a first for an Irish club – but Juventus set the groundwork for that group’s success.

Bradley remembers how he approached the game as a player and has full faith that his team will treat it as just another game rather than playing the occasion.

“It’s strange as a player because there’s a nervous energy, but once it kicks off, it’s a game then. You’re in a game. You can’t think of the shirt or the name that’s on the back of the shirt.

“It’s me against him and that’s how you’ve got to play. Leading up to it there’s a lot of hype and a lot of talk, but once the whistle goes, you can’t play the shirt – you’ve got to play the man.

“I'm sure that'll be in place. There'll be nervous energy but as long as you channel that the right way, you harness that, it can be good.”

He adds: “I think the bigger the game, the bigger the occasion, the better these players are. I’ve said that a number of times for this team and I do believe that. 

“They've grown together as a group. In the last 12-14 months they've shown the bigger the game, the better the occasion, the more they perform.

“We're under no illusions how difficult it is. There's a stage there and I genuinely feel the players will perform.

“It's a fantastic pitch, we're playing against one of the biggest clubs in the world, great players. It's time to go and enjoy and perform and do what we do.

We’ve got six full internationals. The experience is there in the group. We’ve also got Ronan [Finn], who has played more than any domestic players in Europe.

“We’ve got massive experience there throughout the group, so I don’t see the game or the occasion outfazing the group.”