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How Brexit is helping European clubs beat UK giants to some top talent

Among the pigeons and Instagrammers of the bustling Piazza del Duomo, Cathal Heffernan has just been accosted by his first selfie-seeker since moving to Milan.

A young tourist from Limerick named Dylan is delighted with his photo, and wishes Cathal well before wandering off.

"That's the first time that's happened here," says the bemused 17-year-old Corkonian.

It's unlikely to be the last. Heffernan is one of the hottest young prospects in Irish football. Having captained Ireland at under-17 level, he was signed last year to one of world football's truly stellar names, AC Milan.

He has since captained the club's Primavera (under-19s), and trained with the first team - alongside superstars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Olivier Giroud.

"It's brilliant," he tells Sky News. "I've been here a year now, and I've learnt so much since day one.

"The city, the people, the club have just been so good to me. I love it."

And it's all because of Brexit. Or, at least, largely.

Cathal was the subject of intense interest from British clubs, including Manchester United, Leicester City and Celtic, but that all fell away once new post-Brexit rules bedded in.

How Brexit changed the game

FIFA's Article 19 rule had established a general ban on minors transferring internationally, but made an exemption for players over the age of 16 moving within the EU.

But when the UK left the bloc, British clubs suddenly found themselves unable to sign the best teenage players from abroad until they turn 18.

Thus, the storied, traditional route of the best underage Irish players to England (think Robbie Keane to Wolves, Damien Duff to Blackburn Rovers, and more recently Caoimhin Kelleher to Liverpool) was shut off - possibly for good.

"If Brexit hadn't happened, I could be in England now," reflects Cathal. "I'm not saying for sure I'd be in England, but probably I'd be a good bit of the way there.

"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.

"So I'm kind of happy it [Brexit] happened in a way.

"My time in Milan has been amazing, and I'm so lucky that I got this opportunity to come here."

'Grazie alla Brexit'

Cathal isn't alone. An increasing trend has emerged of the most highly-rated Irish teenagers being snapped up by continental European clubs, while their English competitors must wait two more years.

James Abankwah was signed by another Serie A club, Udinese, from St Patrick's Athletic just before his 18th birthday, while another St Pat's player, Glory Nzingo, moved to French side Stade de Reims in 2021 at the age of 17.

When Cathal's friend and rival Kevin Zefi signed for Inter Milan from Shamrock Rovers at the age of 16, Italy's famous sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport was in no doubt where the credit lay. The talent had arrived, read the headline, "grazie alla Brexit" - thanks to Brexit.

"Clubs in Europe are actually realising that there's a market in Ireland", says Ger O'Brien, the academy director at Nzingo and Abankwah's old side St Patrick's Athletic.

The Dublin outfit's most famous son, Paul McGrath, attained legend status at English clubs including Man United and Aston Villa, but O'Brien can now see his best players making their names in Europe instead.

"Those clubs that would've accepted that it was normal for Irish boys to go over to the UK - same language, same culture, same food - are now seeing a massive gap in the market."

'It's a new window'

One player who O'Brien feels would undoubtedly be in England were it not for Brexit is Adam Murphy. He became St Pat's youngest first-team player in the modern era when he made his debut on his 17th birthday last year.

The new rules may have shut off his route to England until he turns 18, but Adam isn't bitter. As the 2023 League of Ireland season got under way this weekend, gaining valuable first-team experience at home and finishing his secondary school education in Ireland are positives to be banked.

"It's a new window that has occurred since Brexit has come into place," Murphy says.

"It's great that European clubs are coming over now and watching young Irish players."

But he concedes the lure of English football is still strong.

"I suppose as a young lad, the dream is to make it over the water and play in the UK. But now it's shown you that that European option is there, whereas a few years ago, it would've been really unusual."

English clubs 'will pay the price'

In Milan, Cathal Heffernan feels the post-Brexit rules put English clubs at a distinct disadvantage.

"They're going to have to figure out a way in the future to try to counteract it," he says.

"If they don't, they're going to end up paying the price.

"The European clubs are going to start taking over. They're going to get the best players from all around Europe."

The Football Association declined to comment on the impact the rule change is having on the English game.

The Professional Footballers' Association was reluctant to comment on the transfer market, as it prides itself as a body representing all footballers in the English game, regardless of their nationality.

However, a spokesperson acknowledged "any changes to regulations for those coming into the UK does, of course, potentially impact players coming to England from overseas, both at the professional level and in club academies".

It's understood that several Premier League clubs, including some in the "Big Six", are unhappy with the situation and lobbying for a relaxation in the rules.

For young Irish players like Cathal Heffernan, the new opportunities born from Brexit come with new challenges.

"You want to come to Europe, but actually doing it and living the life here for a few months…you do get down at times, because you're far from home, you're not just across the water," he says.

"You're in a different country, you don't speak the language at the start, but that kind of gives you more motivation.

"When I moved here, I learned the language as quickly as I could, it helps you out so much."

One aspect of Milanese life that is altogether more palatable is the cuisine, which Cathal describes as "unbelievable."

And, as he peers through the Prada window in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II arcade, the defender admits he's dabbling in the fashion scene now too. Is he assembling a wardrobe he can proudly parade back home in Cork?

"Oh God, no, I can't," he says. "I bought a pair of purple Palm Angel pants a couple of days ago, and my mum was giving me a bit of slagging over it.

"She says, 'look you'd get away with that in Milan, but coming back to Cork, I'd say you're better off leaving the purple trousers!' Some of the stuff you have to leave in Milan, but sure, you have to embrace it, don't you?"

It's the dolce vita - grazie alla Brexit.