BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Tom Bradshaw has revealed he was months away from becoming a helicopter pilot in the Army before landing his break into professional football.
The 26-year-old became Millwall’s record signing last month when he moved from Barnsley in a deal costing £1million. The Lions went on to surpass that total when they landed Ryan Leonard from Sheffield United.
But Bradshaw, capped three times by Wales, has spoken about just how close he came to a totally different career path.
“I never played any academy football growing up and my brother joined the Army,” he told the South London Press. “I was weeks away from becoming a helicopter pilot. I’d had my eye tests and fitness tests. I went through my selections and I was supposed to go into the September intake when I was 16 but they were fully booked, so they said to wait until January.
“I started doing my A-levels and then I got picked up in November or December by Shrewsbury and went into their youth team. I got incredibly lucky. My life could’ve gone in a completely different way. I’m grateful for everything. Being a footballer is something you always dream of as a kid but don’t necessarily expect to happen. It’s a hard profession to get into, a tough old slog.”
Bradshaw’s move to the Lions became something of a drawn-out process over the summer. Millwall’s initial attempts to sign the striker, in the final 12 months of his Oakwell deal, were batted away. He ended up going on the Tykes’ pre-season tour and starting in their League One campaign.
Bradshaw’s partner is pregnant and the couple were keen on a move down to the capital, with family in Bexley.
Eventually the Lions agreed a fee and he signed on August 23, initially on loan with it becoming permanent at the start of January. It finally broke Millwall’s record outlay which had amazingly stood since 1989.
“Lenny came in a week later and broke it again – so I got lucky in that respect,” said Bradshaw. “The price tag doesn’t bother me. Football clubs pay a price and if it breaks records then it breaks records. It isn’t something that players necessarily focus on.
“I wanted to come to Millwall but Barnsley made it difficult in terms of the price they wanted for the time left on my contract. That is their prerogative.
“It’s always difficult when a club is interested in you and you’re interested in moving there. I tried to stay professional with Barnsley, because they treated me well. It was a case of everyone communicating, so we all knew where we stood.
“I’ve played against Millwall a lot of times over the years. I’ve always admired the way they play, especially last season when they had a lot of success doing that. I’ve had great reviews about Neil [Harris], the gaffer. It suited too with the baby being due in November and my girlfriend being from around this area.”
It also allowed Bradshaw to watch his older brother Dan play for Sheppey United against Fisher on Saturday in the SCEFL Premier Division.
“It was only when I got to the ground [St Paul’s] that I realised the women [Millwall Lionesses] play there,” said Bradshaw. “There were Millwall badges everywhere and I started to laugh.
“My brother is a striker as well but is 18 months older than me. He was a defender when I was playing with him in the U14s. It was good to see him play, because of my job I haven’t been able to see him play for years.
“He came off injured after 60 minutes – I think he buckled under the pressure!”
Shrewsbury-born Bradshaw had trials with Everton and Wrexham but was with Aberystwyth Town in the Welsh Premier League before signing for his hometown club, then in League Two, in 2009. He joined Walsall in 2014 and scored 20 goals in each of the the next two campaigns.
“It was quite staggered at Shrewsbury – I’d start a few games and then be brought out and spend a lot of time on the bench,” said Bradshaw. “I went to Walsall and Dean Smith and Richard O’Kelly are the two greatest coaches I’ve known in my career. They gave you the freedom to play and express yourself.
“We had a season where we got so close to getting up into the Championship and it summed up that time. They made me flourish.”
Bradshaw has made two substitute appearances for Millwall and Saturday’s visit of Leeds United could see Harris shake up his selection after three successive Championship defeats.
So can Millwall’s home support play a part in unsettling the early league leaders? Bradshaw said: “It depends on your mentality. I’ve always enjoyed the banter. The fans gave me all kinds of stick when I scored there.
“If you let it get to you then it can massively disrupt your game. Hopefully we can use that this season as a weapon.”