Cathal Heffernan and Paolo Maldini: Cork City tyro learning from the best at AC Milan

Ireland U17 defender has spent four months with one of Europe's most famous clubs
Cathal Heffernan and Paolo Maldini: Cork City tyro learning from the best at AC Milan

AC Milan legend Paolo Maldini with Cork City defender Cathal Heffernan.

IT has undoubtedly been an impactful and productive season for one of Cork’s most rising stars, Cathal Heffernan.

The son of Olympians, Rob and Marian, has been paving his own sporting legacy on Italian soil since he swapped Cork City FC for the stripes of AC Milan in a loan deal earlier this year.

After a successful year in mainland Europe, Heffernan is now looking forward to returning home for some much-needed rest before returning to pre-season training ahead of next season.

Upon his arrival at Vismara Sports Centre at the beginning of February, the 17-year-old hit the ground running, beginning training with his teammates immediately after getting unpacked in his new shared accommodation.

“I settled in straight away and it already seems like I’ve been here for years! The team really helped me to get going right away and the staff have also been very good to me.” 

 The Cork City FC Academy graduate joined the Rossoneri youth setup alongside five other foreigners from Europe and Africa.

Just over a fortnight after touching down in Italy, Heffernan had already been embedded into the coach’s lineup, appearing in the starting eleven for the first time in a home encounter with Ascoli’s U18 squad.

Positive times laid ahead for the centre-back as his side notched five clean sheets in six outings over a period of games spanning across March and April in the Campionato Nazionale U18.

Featuring as a starter in every game apart from the loss, it was now becoming evident that Heffernan would be integral to Milan’s success going forward, despite his late arrival halfway through the season.

This impressive series of games was broken up with an international break where Heffernan represented his country at the U17 grade in the elite phase of the European Qualifiers in Portugal.

While the results didn’t go Ireland’s way with a pair of losses and a draw against Portugal, Finland and Bulgaria, the Cork youngster never fails to recognise the significance of donning the green jersey.

“There’s nothing like playing for your country, especially at such a high level like the European Qualifiers.” 

Oliwier Slawinski of Poland battling Cathal Heffernan of Republic of Ireland in the UEFA U17 Championship. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Oliwier Slawinski of Poland battling Cathal Heffernan of Republic of Ireland in the UEFA U17 Championship. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

 During the three week hiatus, the Milan U18s also partook in the prestigious Viareggio Cup. This youth competition has acted as a springboard for many of the game’s legends: Pirlo, Buffon and Inzaghi to name just a handful.

The side had notable defensive struggles in Heffernan’s absence with the national team, further emphasising his positive impact on the Italian side.

As the season drew to a close in the month of May, Heffernan was no longer included in the U18 squad.

Instead, the ex-Ringmahon defender earned a call-up to the U19 Primavera team, which is the highest level in the youth setup at AC Milan.

“Since coming over here, I’ve played for the U18 team for the majority of the season.” 

 “However, over the last two weeks, I’ve been training with the U19 Primavera team and I was lucky enough to debut for them last week. It was amazing to get subbed on at that level, I was absolutely buzzing. 

“I wasn’t expecting to come on but I was delighted when I got told to warm up.” 

Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton
Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton

A five-minute cameo in a 4-2 win over Genoa U19 is an extremely significant stepping stone for the aspirational Heffernan in the early stages of his professional career, edging him even closer to breaking into the first team at a top European club.

While departing the field, Heffernan was congratulated on his debut by who he described as 'the greatest defender of all time', Paolo Maldini.

The current technical director at the club stopped to smile for a photograph with an elated Heffernan as the loanee wrapped up a season to remember in ideal fashion.

I’ve learned so much over the past year and I think it’s all starting to come together now at the right time.

"I’ve learned how to be a better defender, how to speak a new language and I’ve just become a better person overall. 

“I’m flying back home next week so I’ll put the feet up for a while and relax before getting back to training myself ahead of preseason.”

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