Cathal Heffernan was just accosted by his first selfie-seeker since he moved to Milan among the Piazza del Duomo’s pigeons, Instagrammers and Instagrammers.
Dylan, a young Limerick tourist, is thrilled with Dylan’s photo and wishes Cathal all the best before he wanders off.
Corkonian, 17, says “That’s the first thing that’s ever happened here.”
It is unlikely that it will be the last. Heffernan is one the most exciting young prospects in Irish football. Heffernan, who captained Ireland under-17, was signed to AC Milan last year.
Since then, he has been the club’s Primavera (under-19s) captain and has trained alongside stars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Olivier Giroud.
Sky News: “It’s amazing,” he says. “I’ve been here for a year and have learned so much since day one.
“The people, the city and the club have been so wonderful to me. It is a wonderful place to live.
It’s all due to Brexit. Or at least, it is largely.
Cathal attracted a lot of interest from British clubs including Manchester United and Leicester City, but all that was lost once the new post-Brexit rules were in place.
How Brexit has changed the game
FIFA’s Article 19 rule established a ban on minors from transferring internationally. However, it made an exception for players aged 16 and older who were moving within the EU.
However, when the UK left the bloc, British football clubs found themselves suddenly unable to sign top-quality teenage players from overseas until they turn 18.
The storied, traditional route of top underage Irish players to England, such as Robbie Keane and Damien Duff to Blackburn Rovers and, more recently, Caoimhin Kelleher to Liverpool, was cut off, possibly permanently.
Cathal says, “If Brexit hadn’t happened, then I could have been in England now.” “I don’t know if I would be there, but I think I’d probably be a good deal of the way.”
“Because Brexit, I had no choice but to search for another route. After a few trials in Italy, I was able to land this job in Milan. It completely changed my life.
“So, I’m kinda happy it [Brexit] happened.
“My time in Milan was amazing and I feel so fortunate that I had the opportunity to visit.”
‘Grazie alla Brexit’
Cathal is not the only one. There is a growing trend of high-rated teenagers from Ireland being taken up by clubs in Europe, while English counterparts must wait for two years.
James Abankwah signed by Udinese from St Patrick’s Athletic, another Serie A club just before his 18th birthday. Glory Nzingo, a St Pat’s player, made the move to Stade de Reims, France, in 2021 at the tender age of 17.
Kevin Zefi, Cathal’s rival and friend at Shamrock Rovers, signed for Inter Milan at 16 years old. La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy’s most famous sports newspaper, was no doubt the source of the credit. “Grazie alla Brexit” was the headline.
Ger O’Brien, academy director at Nzingo’s old side St Patrick’s Athletic, says that clubs in Europe are realizing there’s an Irish market.
Paul McGrath, the most well-known son of the Dublin outfit, was a legend at English clubs such as Man United and Aston Villa. O’Brien, however, can now see his finest players in Europe.
“There is a huge gap in the market for clubs that would have accepted that Irish boys could move to the UK. They share the same language, culture and food.
“It’s new window”
O’Brien believes Adam Murphy is the one player O’Brien would love to see in England if it wasn’t for Brexit. When he made his debut for St Pat’s first team on his 17th Birthday last year, he became the youngest player in modern times.
Adam is not bitter about the new rules, even though it may have closed his route to England for 18 years. This weekend saw the 2023 League of Ireland season get underway. It was a great opportunity to gain valuable experience in Ireland and finish his secondary education in Ireland.
Murphy states, “It’s an entirely new window that has opened since Brexit took place.”
“It’s wonderful that European clubs are now coming over and watching young Irish footballers.”
He admits that English football still has a strong appeal to him.
“As a young man, I suppose my dream was to cross the ocean and live in the UK. It’s now obvious that there is a European option, which was not possible a few years back.
English clubs “will pay the price”
Cathal Heffernan, Milan believes that English clubs are at an advantage after Brexit.
He says, “They’re going have to find a way in future to try and counteract it.”
“If they do not, they will end up paying the price.”
“The European clubs will take over. They will get the best players across Europe.
The Football Association declined comment to discuss the effect of the rule changes on the English game.
The Professional Footballers Association did not comment on the transfer market as it prides itself in being a body that represents all English footballers, regardless of nationality.
A spokesperson for the UK acknowledged that “any changes in regulations for those entering the UK could, of course, impact players coming from overseas to England, both at professional level and club academies.”
It is understood that many Premier League clubs, including those in the “Big Six”, are dissatisfied with the current situation and are lobbying for changes to the rules.
The new opportunities that Brexit offers for young Irish players, like Cathal Heffernan brings new challenges.
He says, “You want Europe but you actually do it, and live the life there for a few weeks…you get down sometimes because you’re far away from home, you are not just across the ocean.”
“You are in a foreign country and don’t know the language, but it gives you more motivation.
“I learned the language quickly when I moved to this country, it is so helpful.
Milanese cuisine is a unique aspect that makes Milanese life more delicious. Cathal calls it “unbelievable”.
As he looks through the Prada window at Galleria Vittorio Emilio II arcade, the defender confesses that he is also interested in fashion. He is assembling a wardrobe that he can proudly display back in Cork.
He says, “Oh God, I can’t,” “I bought a pair purple Palm Angel pants a few days ago and my mom was giving me some slagging.
She said, “Look, you could get away with that Milan, but when you come back to Cork I’d say that you’re better off not wearing the purple pants!” You have to embrace some of the things you need to leave Milan.
It’s the dolce vita – grazie alla Brexit.