The League of Ireland has been a staple of Irish sports since it was founded as a single division known as the A Division in 1921 until 1985 when the league was restructured and the A Division was replaced by the League of Ireland Premier Division. During this time, the B Division was formed in 1964 as a second tier of Irish football which was also apart of the league restructure and replaced by the League of Ireland First Division in 1985. During this long history, the league has seen many iconic players and goal scorers. Long retied heroes like Pat Morley and Donal Leahy rubbing shoulders with goal scoring modern greats like Jason Byrne and Glen Crowe in the record books.
Only one man holds the honour of having the record of been the greatest goal scorer of all time. That man is Brendan Bradley who currently sits top of the League of Ireland all time goal scorer list with 235 league goals. This is a record that he looks to hold on to for some time as second place is Jason Byrne who left the league in 2017 with 217 league goals. The furthest active player on the list is Danny Furlong who sits in 40th place with 103 goals and currently doesn’t play in the League of Ireland and is 30 years old.
So, it can’t be stated enough how difficult of a record that is to beat. Even a modern-day fox in the box like Pat Hoban has some serious catching up to do if he even wants to crack the top twenty. Enough about others let’s look at the impressive career of Brendan Bradley and see where the goals came from.
Brendan was born in Derry on the 7th of June 1950. Like many talented footballers when he was as a child, he picked up a lot of his ability playing football on the street with his childhood pals. A young Bradley at aged 15 found himself playing regular football in the Derry and District League. Shockingly the all-time goal scorer in our league started off as a defender and gradually moved into the middle of the park at schoolboy level.
He got the opportunity to sign for his hometown club Derry City at age 16 as his talent was evident to all even at that early age. Derry was the first team to play Brendan as a striker certainly a smart move that turned out to be by then manager Willie Ross. Despite his talent impressing many at the club chances didn’t come to often for a young Brendan with lead striker Danny Hale running a muck for Derry at the time and making it impossible to leave him out. So, in his original run with Derry Brendan only played four times in all competitions for the club only netting himself a single goal.
He made a short move to Donegal to join Finn Harps in 1969 after three years at Derry. He was spotted having a kick out about in Buncrana in Donegal by then Harps manager Patsy McGowan and was signed to the club for £100. That sentence alone will tell you how much the game has changed since those times. He signed for Finn Harps weeks into their debut season in the League of Ireland in the 1969/70 season. It was a horrific debut for Harps getting beaten 10-2 in their opening fixture against Shamrock Rovers. Better times and goals were to follow as Brendan signed for the club a few weeks after this trashing.
Brendan was a regular in the team and showed his worth with regular goals for his new club. During this season he even scored his and his clubs first hat trick in the League of Ireland in an away fixture against Athlone Town. He finished that season as top goal scorer with 18 goals and Harps finished in a very respectable 7th place in their debut season.
The following seasons spelled more success for Brendan and Harps as once again he finished top goal scorer in the league with 20 league goals. In the 1971/72 season Finn Harps even won their first major honour winning that years Dublin City Cup. They beat Cork Hibernians 1-0 in the final in Dalymount Park with Brendan himself scoring the winner.
The success and goals of Brendan haven’t gone unnoticed in England either. He signed for Division 4 side Lincoln City in the Football League in the summer of 1972 for £6,000 a fair bit more than his previous fee of one hundred quid. This spell of his career started off promisingly he made his debut in a 1-1 draw away to Darlington in the league. His first goal soon followed two games later as he scored a double in an away 3-0 win against Workington in the league which set him off as he scored in the following four games. He scored 11 goals in his first 18 games for his new club.
That would all change in December of that year when manager David Herd was sacked and replaced with future England manager Graham Taylor. Brendan just never got going under Taylor. He scored during Taylors first game in charge in a 2-2 draw away to Newport County but that would be his final goal for the club. He failed to score in any of the clubs remaining games. The self-confessed home bird decided to return to Ireland after just one season in England. Despite having some regrets in later life about not staying a bit longer as Tottenham where reportedly eyeing him up at one stage. Brendan still looks back happily on his time in England and on Graham Taylor despite things not working out on the pitch.
When he arrived back in Ireland, he resigned with Finn Harps for £4,000 in March 1973. This return gave him the highlight of his career as he scored twice in the FAI Cup final in 1974 to help Harps lift the famous cup in Dalymount Park after beating St. Patrick’s Athletic 3-1 in the final. To date its still Harps biggest win in the club’s history and a well needed boost as the club found itself in a testing time. About a year before the win the team tragically lost their midfielder Jim McDermott after he was killed by a falling tree while driving the team’s minibus. The win was in honour of Jim McDermott a touching tribute to their comrade.
This cup victory qualified Finn Harps for the following seasons European Cup Winners Cup they got drawn with Turkish side Bursaspor. It was an uphill task as they were beaten 4-2 in the away leg with Brendan scoring in the game. They held the Turkish team to a 0-0 draw back in Donegal, but it wasn’t enough to see them leave the competition. That would be the one of the clubs four European ties during the 70s. They also played Everton, Aberdeen and Derby County in the UEFA Cup. The Derby County tie gave Brendan his lowest point of his career as they got trashed 4-1 at home and 12-0 away to get dumped out of the tournament 16-1 on aggregate.
Despite the defeat to Bursaspor Brendan once again topped the goal scoring list that season finishing with 21 goals. He would top that tally in the following 1975/76 season. He scored a very impressive 29 league goals in 26 league games for Finn Harps. His standout performance coming at home against Sligo Rovers in a 6-1 victory where Brendan scored all six goals. His consistent performances helped Harps finish as runners up that season just four points behind winners Dundalk.
After this huge season Brendan agreed to go on a three-month spell away from the League of Ireland. He travelled to Canada for his loan spell with Toronto Blizzard who played in the North American Soccer League. He only made a single appearance, but Brendan looks back on his trip as a success as this is where he got to meet and play with his childhood hero Portuguese football legend Eusebio.
He returned to Ballybofey where he spent two more years with Finn Harps. He left the club in 1978 to join Athlone Town where he spent an unspectacular season. He only scored six goals in 21 appearances for the club. A factor that Brendan blames on that fact that he was still living in Northern Ireland during this period. At the time it was over a three-hour drive to Athlone every time he was training and playing a match which took its toll over the season.
Bradley returned to his good form in 1979 when he signed for Sligo Rovers. The move would see him reunite with the man that originally brought him to Finn Harps Patsy McGowen who was managing Sligo at the time. During his three years at Sligo Brendan scored 44 goals in 90 appearances for the club. One of those appearances came in another FAI Cup final in 1981 where Sligo got beaten 2-0 by Dundalk.
When he left Sligo, he once again signed for Finn Harps for his third spell at the club. He spent a further four seasons with the Donegal side. During this time Brendan was beginning to wind down his career as he was losing his eager passion for the game and the league. He still scored 41 goals in 71 appearances during this time. He left Finn Harps a final time in 1985 as a hero at the club and he still is to this day.
He soon returned to where it all started Derry City after taking a short spell away from the game to reenergise some of his passion. Derry City were returning to the League of Ireland and successfully gained their license in 1985. They dropped out of the league due to insistence from the league. This is because back in the early 70s Derry City couldn’t play home games in their ground the Brandywell due to security concerns surrounding the troubles taking place in Derry at the time. They had to move 40km away and play their home games in Coleraine. This was simply unsustainable, and the club had to withdraw from the league to play at junior level.
Since their return Derry were attracting big crowds to the Brandywell and this enticed Brendan to sign back with his hometown club in January 1986. Once again it turned out to be a short spell with him only making 10 appearances for the club. He did help them become the first winners of the First Division Shield as they beat Longford 6-1 on aggregate over two legs.
That was the last of the playing career of Brendan Bradley. He retired in 1986 after that season. He retired with an outstanding 309 goals in all competitions and as previously mentioned 235 league goals making him the all-time goal scorer in the history of the League of Ireland. This stat becomes even more impressive when you consider back then they didn’t play as many games as they did now, and Brendan played part time for all his League of Ireland career.
At the time of writing Brendan is 69 years old and still lives in Derry and is an active follower of the League of Ireland. He never got into management despite been offered a managerial role at Finn Harps shortly after his retirement but had no interest. You can still find him shouting instructions from the stands in either the Brandywell and Finn Park every now and again.
While people often say it’s a shame he never played at international level or won more silverware he still goes down as a legend of the league. His record will stand for many years to come. This legendary status was even recognised by the FAI in 2019 when he was awarded the Special Merit Award at the that years FAI International Awards for his contributions to domestic football in Ireland. Well-deserved award for an undeniable legend of the League of Ireland.
Brendan Bradley’s honours include:
1x FAI Cup with Finn Harps in 1974
1x First Division Shield with Derry City in 1986
1x Dublin City Cup with Finn Harps in 1972
SWAI Personality of the Year in 1976
FAI Special Merit Award in 2019