Blog: Cork’s Brexit generation like Cathal Heffernan set to come of age in … –

IRELAND’S Brexit generation are set for a graduation ceremony like no other as they are getting ready for the Elite Round of the U19 European Championship qualifiers.

Tom Mohan’s team will play Slovakia, Greece, and Estonia this month at Ferrycarrig Park in Wexford with a place at the final tournament in Malta at stake.

The spine of the team selected will be graduates of the group that took part in a qualifying tournament for the U17 European Championships in Cork in October 2021.

That was cited as a turning football for Irish football as not one player in the 20+ squad for an Andorra qualifier was attached to a club in England. This was seen as a complete breakaway from the tradition of young players moving across the Channel when they turned 16, and the reason for this was simple: Brexit.

Players now have to be over 18 to sign for a club in England, but they can move to a club on the continent after they turn 16. There are ways around these laws, like if a player has a parent from the UK, but this is almost entirely dictated by individual circumstances.

The new law was made clear that night in October and there was no shortage of analysis of the new world that Irish football found itself in.

Just under 18 months later and the players are getting ready for a graduation ceremony as they’ve navigated the new rules and regulations to earn their places at top clubs from all across Europe.


The most high-profile player from that night was Cathal Heffernan as he went on to sign for Italian giants AC Milan, a transfer even he admits was influenced by the UK leaving the European Union.

This followed a number of trials the defender had in 2021 with Italian clubs Juventus, AC Milan, AS Roma and Atalanta and German side Bayer Leverkusen.

“If Brexit hadn’t happened, I probably could be in England right now,” he told Sky Sports.

“Because of Brexit, I had to look for another route. I’d been on a couple of trials in Italy here – and then, thankfully, I landed this one in Milan, so it changed my life completely,” he added.

For the players attached to clubs in the League of Ireland, they went back to playing in the Underage National Leagues.

This allowed them to develop in an elite environment at home, whereas they would have went to England before once they turned 16.

Mark O’Mahony and Franco Umeh, who played with Heffernan in that Ireland squad, did exactly that and they moved to England within days of turning 18.

They played for City’s Academy before stepping up to the senior team and working with Colin Healy, a dual role they combined with their international commitments. The academy system, which came into existence in 2012, has slowly established itself as a nursey for young Irish players and it is now the school of excellence in Irish football.

O’Mahony and Umeh are the latest to follow this trend as they signed for Brighton & Hove Albion and Crystal Palace, respectively, last January.

The pair slotted into life in England seamlessly as they now have four goals and an assist between themselves.

The process is continuing as Justin Ferizaj, another member of that U17s team, had trials with Tottenham Hotspur just weeks after turning 18.

The Shamrock Rovers protégé has followed the same journey as O’Mahony and Umeh, as he went from academy to first team, and questions are now being asked about where he will sign when the time comes.

These players are the Brexit generation, who had to break away from decades of history so they could make it as professional footballers.

They encouraged hours of talk and debate of the status of Irish academies, and highlighted the importance of having domestic underage structures.

The hat-trick of qualifiers might not be a cap-in-gown sort of celebration, but it will still be an important marker for the coming of age of one of the most fascinating groups to ever put on a green jersey.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s