From wondering how Liverpool could possibly cope without the creative influence of Trent Alexander-Arnold to his deputy making himself undroppable – it’s been some leap.
When the No 84 appeared on the electronic board midway through the second half of an emphatic Premier League victory over Chelsea, the chant of “there’s only one Conor Bradley” echoed around Anfield.
As the beaming youngster headed to the touchline, there was a bear hug from Jurgen Klopp and a playful shove from assistant manager Pep Lijnders.
Klopp, who celebrated his 200th Premier League win, had been desperate to take the focus away from news of his shock exit at the end of the season and the Northern Irish right-back duly obliged with a dazzling performance.
The assists he provided for both Diogo Jota and Dominik Szoboszlai were sandwiched by the first goal of his Liverpool career. Latching on to Luis Diaz’s pass, he burst clear before unleashing a clinical low finish beyond Djordje Petrovic, becoming the first Northern Irishman to score for the club since Sammy Smyth against Middlesbrough in 1954.
A memorable moment – even if Bradley was hazy on the details.
“I can’t remember a thing to be honest,” he said. “I just remember running over to the corner flag and doing the knee slide. It felt good when I struck it, but I didn’t actually see it go in. Someone was blocking me but then I saw everyone jumping up.
“I just feel like I’m in a dream. It’s unbelievable. It’s surreal for me. I’ve been supporting this club since I was five years old and I’m so thankful for the support.”
Aged 20 years and 206 days, Bradley became the youngest Liverpool player to both score and assist a goal in a top-flight match since Raheem Sterling in August 2014 against Southampton.
But that was not the sum of it. Bradley completed 25 of his 31 passes (81 per cent), including four key passes, and made three tackles. For context, a Chelsea side who were comprehensively outfought and outclassed throughout made two key passes between them all night.
Bradley is no flash in the pan. Since Alexander-Arnold damaged his knee in the FA Cup tie at Arsenal in early January, the academy graduate has contributed five assists and a goal in five successive starts in all competitions.
During that sequence Liverpool have advanced to the Carabao Cup final, the last 16 of the FA Cup and they remain in the box seat in the Premier League title race.
Bradley has shown remarkable levels of composure and maturity. Watching him play against Chelsea as he nullified the threat of Raheem Sterling, it was hard to believe this was only his second Premier League appearance.
Asked about his potential, Klopp said: “I’ve known it for a while. In my left ear is Pep Lijnders and in my right ear is (first team development coach) Vitor Matos. But I didn’t need a lot of convincing.
“It’s a joy to watch him and all credit to the academy. Liverpool has a pretty special connection to Ireland and Northern Ireland.
“The way he plays, the way he shows up, it’s a wonderful story. I can understand why everyone was so loud when he scored. It was beautiful, he deserves it, I’m very happy for him.”
Bradley didn’t officially join Liverpool until 2019 when he made the move to Merseyside from Dungannon United.
However, he had been training at the club’s Belfast centre of excellence since the age of nine. Scouts from Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea among others flocked to watch him play but his heart was always set on Liverpool.
The club’s decision to sell Neco Williams to Nottingham Forest in the summer of 2022 was partly influenced by the fact that Bradley was coming through the ranks.
The loan move to third-tier Bolton Wanderers in 2022-23 proved to be crucial in terms of his development as he clocked up 53 appearances and was named their player of the year.
Bradley would have featured more prominently earlier this season for Liverpool but for the stress fracture in his back which kept him out until November.
The big question is what happens now with Arsenal to come at the Emirates on Sunday?
After two short cameo outings to build up his fitness, Alexander-Arnold is ready to return to the starting line-up. It is a genuine dilemma for the manager, considering Bradley’s output.
“There’s no situation,” insisted Klopp. “Now the next game is coming and I have no idea who can play again because they looked quite knackered when I had a look in the dressing room. We need them all.”
The impressive Alexis Mac Allister took a heavy blow to the knee late on at Anfield. The World Cup winner had an exceptional evening, completing 64 of his 70 passes (91 per cent) and making a game-high eight tackles. It remains to be seen how he recovers.
If Mac Allister is struggling then Bradley could remain at right-back with Alexander-Arnold operating in the holding midfield role.
The youngster’s teammates have certainly taken notice of his impact.
“Trent should take care of his position!” Szoboszlai joked afterwards. “We need everybody because we have a lot of games. Trent got injured, unlucky, but we had Bradley and he did very well. A goal, two assists, you couldn’t wish for a better day. We are very happy to have him.”
Klopp headed to Dubai during the recent winter break where he was hounded by Bolton fans asking him to sanction another loan for Bradley. It was never going to happen.
The man who was supposed to just keep the spot warm until Alexander-Arnold was fit again has proved to be so much more than a stop-gap.
(Top photo: Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images)