Kenny’s Kids: The four Irish teens with a Serie A dream

Cathal Heffernan became the fourth Irish teenager to sign for a Serie A club earlier this week.

Earlier this week, Cork City’s Cathal Heffernan agreed a full-time contract with none other than the famous red and black of AC Milan. 

Heffernan, famously the son of Olympian parents Rob and Marian, is a ball-playing centre-back with the physical attributes you would come to expect from a man of his genetics.

After swiftly progressing through the Cork City ranks, he attracted interest from around Europe as he went on trial with a range of clubs, including Roma and Bayer Leverkusen.

As captain of the Ireland U17 side, Heffernan’s stock would be high in comparison to other Irish teenagers and the standard of club expressing interest reflected that fact.

The most high-profile of all were seven-time European Cup champions AC Milan.

As it happened, they were the club to put the best foot forward by offering the then 16-year-old an initial six-month loan contract.

Heffernan’s six months in Milan essentially acted as an extended trial period but, as verified by this week’s full-time contract offer, the Corkman left an impression on the Rossoneri to secure his place in their future plans. 

The Heffernan story is a big one. However, the wider story unfolding is intriguing. This week’s news wasn’t a one-off anomaly like say, the late Noel Campbell joining Fortuna Koln in 1971, but rather a snapshot of a wider trend emerging.

Brexit regulations preventing Irish players from joining UK clubs until they turn 18 has left the new generation with a Euro-vision.

Heffernan is the fourth Irishman to move to Italy in the last 12 months and, at the time of writing, a fifth player, UCD’s Liam Kerrigan, is being linked with a move to Serie B’s Como 1907.

Last week, St Pat’s right-back Sam Curtis was reported to be attracting interest from Dutch powerhouses Feyenoord. 

Irish Teens Serie A

The four Irish teens chasing a Serie A dream.

Cathal Heffernan, Kevin Zefi, James Abankwah and Festy Ebosele are the four players contracted to Serie A clubs for the 2022/2023 season and the aim of this article is to contextualise the Path, Place and Prospects of each of the teenagers.

Heffernan and Zefi have already spent six and nine months in Italy respectively, so by using data from Transfermarkt and interpreting various reports, we can analyse how they have performed to date.

While for the Udinese-bound Abankwah and Ebosele, it will be a case of studying their paths so far and predicting how they might perform in the north of Italy in the coming years: 

Cathal Heffernan

Club: AC Milan

Age: 17

International team: Ireland U17s & Ireland U18s

Path: Heffernan grew up playing for Ringmahon Rangers who are based in Mahon, at the south-east side of Cork.

Ringmahon are perhaps best known for the production of Liverpool star Caoimhin Kelleher, but it now looks like they repeated the trick by developing Heffernan into a well-rounded defender during the fundamental stages of his football education.

Caoimhin Kelleher future

It wasn’t until 2019 that Heffernan joined Cork City to compete in the League of Ireland under-15s national league where his talent was obvious and his rise was sharp.

From U15s to U19s, Heffernan climbed the academy ranks over the course of a year and a little later in October 2021, he made his senior League of Ireland debut.

His Cork City U19 performances and first-team substitute involvements coincided with impressive Ireland U17 displays around that time and come January, his life would change altogether.

Place: Since January’s transfer deadline day, Heffernan has found himself playing for AC Milan, living a whole new life under the nose of legends like Paolo Maldini.

Although Heffernan admits that the first few weeks took some acclimatising, he soon started games for their under-18 outfit and worked upwards from there. According to Transfermarktthe Ireland underage star played 13 times for the Milan’s U18s, all at centre-back, and all kept six clean-sheets. Of the ten games he started, he managed to shut out the opponents on five occasions.

Encouragingly, his latest appearance came at a higher level – in the Primavera 1 (under-19s league) – as he came on in the last five minutes as reward for his strong performances for the U18s. It was after that fixture against Genoa’s U19s that Heffernan was snapped with an impressed Maldini.

Not long later, Heffernan shared a photograph of himself training with Milan’s first team on social media. However, it would be a shock to see that become a regular sight next season.

Prospects: Now 17 years of age, Heffernan’s ambitions for next season will likely revolve around securing a starting position for both the Ireland and Milan U19s teams. It is always difficult to get a grasp of how well Irish underage players are performing, sometimes there can even be a tendency to equate any player at a great club to automatically being a great player.

Heffernan is a work in progress and made a couple of errors in the green jersey this year, that shouldn’t be a surprise, but there is mounting evidence that the Milan move is working out just fine.

Getting regular starts in the U18s side was a steady platform for him and receiving minutes for the Primavera 1 team while freshly in the door on a loan-deal would have been viewed as a serious compliment.

In the short to medium term, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Heffernan impress in Primavera 1 (one league away from Serie A) but breaking through the glass ceiling to the first team could be tricky. At worst, a centre-back education at AC Milan will place him at the top of many a club’s shopping list.

James Abankwah 

Club: Udinese

Age: 18

International team: Ireland U19s

Path: Ireland U19 star James Abankwah has a lot of similarities to Cathal Heffernan. He’s a centre-half, he’s technically assured, he is on his way to Italy, but he also has the ‘schoolboy club to League of Ireland’ route behind him.

Abankwah lived in Waterford, Kildare, Dublin and Donegal growing up before moving to Longford where he started to show promise at Melview. The defender’s ambitions started to show by the time he was 12 years of age, as, although still living in Longford with his family, he decided to sign for prestigious Dublin club Cherry Orchard and found his way to training and matches by whatever means possible.

After impressing at the 2016 Kennedy Cup for an U14 Longford XI, St Patrick’s Athletic, who now have an official partnership with Cherry Orchard, decided to make a move for Abankwah and signed him for the U15 League of Ireland team in 2019.

A year later he was promoted to the St Pat’s U19s team and by July 2021, he signed his first professional contract for the Saints. His first team debut came two days later at the age of 17 and he went on to make 13 appearances that season – the most impressive of which came off the bench in the FAI Cup final victory over Bohemians at the Aviva Stadium.

Place: Abankwah was always going to attract interest from abroad but when it comes from a club like Udinese, it makes it all the more intriguing. The Serie A side finished 12th last season and it will be interesting to see how many opportunities they will afford a teenager essentially unproven outside of the League of Ireland.

A point that has been regularly made about the transfer is that Udinese and Championship side Watford have a close relationship that has seen in excess of 50 transfers take place between the two clubs.

It’s therefore possible that after a couple of seasons with the Udinese U19 side and indeed the first team, the Hornets could come buzzing around for his signature.

Prospects: It would be a surprise to see Abankwah start the season in the Udinese team. He is still only 18 years of age and football aside, moving to the other side of Europe will take some getting used to.

Instead, I expect Abankwah and Heffernan to mirror each other’s situations next season by playing in Primavera 1, learning from the Italian youth coaches and soaking up all the information about defending they possibly can.

If he finds first team opportunities difficult to come by it would be far from disastrous as he will still be adding new layers to his game every week, marrying his League of Ireland know-how with a whole fresh perspective fed to him by the best minds in Italian football.

As a result, Abankwah has an amazing opportunity to mould into a polished modern centre-back by the time he is twenty years of age, at which stage he can start looking to make his mark at a big club. That all said, unlike Heffernan at AC Milan, some truly eye-catching performances at under-19 level could very well force him into the senior side ahead of schedule.

Kevin Zefi 

Club: Inter Milan

Age: 17

International team: Ireland U17s, Ireland U18s & Ireland U19s

Path: Hailing from Clonsilla in West Dublin, Kevin Zefi played for St Kevin’s Boys for many years before linking up with Shamrock Rovers in 2019. It was at Rovers that he swiftly made a name for himself by terrorising defenders with his rapid feet and accomplished ball control.

He started out with their U15 side – that was a little unfair on opponents – so he progressed to the under-17s and then to the under-19s. The addition of ‘Shamrock Rovers II’ to the League of Ireland First Division afforded Zefi and a host of other Rovers teenagers the opportunity to experience men’s football at an younger than usual age and the dribbler took the chance with both hands.

He became the youngest goalscorer in League of Ireland history by scoring against Longford as a 15-year-old. When he turned 16, Inter Milan came calling.

Place: Zefi’s life at Inter got off to the best possible start. He made his debut for their U17s side last September in stunning style with two goals and three assists against Cittadella.

Inter’s academy staff would have been instantly excited by the prospect on their hands but things did get more challenging as the season progressed. Zefi went on to make another 17 appearances in the competition and finished the campaign on six goals and seven assists in total [Transfermarkt] as other opponents proved that bit more challenging than Cittadella.

To contextualise Zefi’s standing at Inter, Heffernan played the full season with AC Milan’s U18 team while Zefi only made one U18 appearance as a substitute, instead playing the lion’s share of his football at 17s level.

He is nonetheless on a promising path however and, as revealed by former Ireland international Stephen Carr, the Dubliner has even trained with the club’s first team on more than one occasion.

Prospects: Carr, who is acting as an advisor to Zefi in Italy, also explained to the Irish Independent that Inter only sign three foreign players each season, stating that players are simply not recruited if management don’t see them having a genuine chance of progressing to the first team.

Those who have watched Zefi with Ireland will know he is a rare talent and, like people who followed Troy Parrott at the same age, most will think he has a chance of making it at the top level. However, as seems to be increasingly the case, such exciting underage attackers take a lot of time to develop their game physically and tactically before they begin to challenge modern defenders.

1656194609 496 Kennys Kids The four Irish teens with a Serie A

Zefi is no Adam Idah or Evan Ferguson who boasted serious physique from an early age, but instead a short 5’7 winger who has a lot to learn before he can navigate men’s football.

It would be unfair to put the hopes of a nation on his young shoulders but give him time and he will find his own path. A diamond for sure, but a diamond that needs some polishing.

Festy Ebosele

Club: Udinese

Age: 19

International team: Ireland senior team & Ireland U21s

Path: Enniscorty’s Festy Ebosele is a lot further down the road in his development than the three others and therefore has the best chance of making an impact at first team level in 2022/2023.

Ebosele played with local side Moyne Rangers when he was younger before being snapped up by League of Ireland outfit Bray Wanderers for whom he played with at U15 level in 2018. That same year he was selected for Ireland at U15 & U17 level, earning a move to Derby County ahead of the 2018/2019 season.

He spent just over two years impressing for the Derby U23s and Ireland under-19s before eventually making his Rams debut in January 2021 in the FA Cup.

By April 2021 he made his Championship debut and, under the guidance of Wayne Rooney last season, he had his most productive season to date by playing 36 first team matches. His man of the match performance against Hull last January put his name in the headlines as he bagged a goal and an assist and, thankfully for Ebosele, Udinese sat up and took notice.

Place: Ebosele will arrive at pre-season training in the company of James Abankwah as both players try to figure where they will stand in the initial Udinese pecking order.

Ebosele, a proven threat at Championship level, will hope to start for the bottom half Serie A side, or at least be deployed as a valued impact sub upon his arrival. Although the winger failed to make his Ireland debut in the Uefa Nations League earlier this month, he will have acquired an appetite for the green shirt, meaning first-team minutes in Serie A will be important to feed his international ambitions.

Thankfully, the feeling around the signing is that Udinese have genuine intent to make the most of Ebosele’s undoubted attacking talent and the proof will lie in the pudding of whether he can have an effect in one of Europe’s most prestigious leagues. He showed flashes of brilliance for Derby but flashes won’t be enough to cement his name in the Udinese teamsheet.

Prospects: There aren’t many players around who possess the raw power of young Ebosele and that alone could keep him on the books of some decent clubs throughout his career.

However, when you’re only 19 years of age and you have already earned a promotion from the Championship to Italy’s premier competition, there is a real opportunity to prosper into something more. Ebosele’s defensive work as a wing-back, as well as his decision making in attack, has been questioned in the past.

Wayne Rooney Festy Ebosele

But on the bright side, those are the very things you would expect to be ironed out and improved by simply getting different experiences under your belt at such a young age.

A breakout season in the Championship at the age of 19 is nothing to be sniffed at and there is a possibility that a successful learning experience could propel the speedster not only into Stephen Kenny’s starting XI plans but also into the upper echelons of the European game.

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Kenny’s Kids: The four Irish teens with a Serie A dream

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