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The son of Olympians Rob and Marian Heffernan on choosing soccer over athletics

The young defender was made captain of Ireland U15s at the weekend.

Cathal Heffernan with his parents and sisters.
Cathal Heffernan with his parents and sisters.

CATHAL HEFFERNAN’S EXCITEMENT is palpable.

It’s around 4pm. That morning, he found out he would captaining his country for the first time.

“I was shocked to see it, but I was so happy,” he tells The42. “Just to hear Jason [Donohue] say I’m captain was one of the greatest feelings ever. Walking out, the national anthem being played, it was a really good experience.

“When I went into the dressing room, it was up on the wall. So I was delighted.”

His Ireland career may be relatively short-lived so far, but Heffernan, who turns 15 in April, has already made a big impression.

He has been a regular part of an Ireland side that has a 100% record this season. They have played eight and won eight, with Heffernan an integral member of a backline that has conceded just four goals in that period.

One of the standout wins was a 3-1 victory over England at St George’s Park last December.

His last game against England, he had a really good performance,” Ireland U15s boss Jason Donohue says before Saturday’s match with Australia. “He has good leadership skills. He has been our most improved player. This is nothing I haven’t told him, by the way.

“And I feel like I’d like to see what he’s like leading a team out in international football.”

Despite playing against older players on the Australia U17s team, Heffernan does not look out of place. On the contrary, he could easily pass for 17 given the player’s impressive physical stature for someone so young.

He delivers an assured display at the back as Ireland earn a deserved 2-0 win, playing the kind of positive, ball-playing football that Donohue favours and the team is adept at producing.

“It was a tough test, I really have to say, but I enjoyed it,” the teenage centre-back says afterwards.

It was one of the hardest games we’ve ever played. They were bigger than us, some of them were quick, it was a tough game. I was happy to get over the line.”

If Heffernan continues at his current rate of progress, he has a good chance of making a career at the top level of the game. He certainly does not need to look far for advice about elite sport. His mother and father, Marian and Rob, are both Olympians, with the latter a bronze medallist in the 50km racewalk at the London 2012 Games.

Cathal got a taste of the spotlight himself when he appeared on a recent celebrity edition of the RTÉ show Ireland’s Fittest Family alongside Rob and Marian, and his 16-year-old sister Meghan, who herself plays for Cork City U17s. They were coached by Derval O’Rourke and ultimately won a €10,000 prize, which they donated to an autism charity.

“They’ve had a massive influence,” Cathal says of his parents. “They’ve been teaching me most things about high performance and stuff like that. How to take care of my body and how to maximise my performance before I go away. Managing my training load and not leaving me do too much before I go on these trips and play matches with Ireland. They’ve been a really good help to me over the past 12 months and I think that’s how I’ve got here today.”

Cathal did do athletics when he was younger as well as playing some GAA, but he was ultimately not tempted to follow in his parents’ footsteps.

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“I don’t like it. It’s too hard, as my dad says. Soccer is just my thing now at the moment. I just want to play football. I’m really enjoying it and I wouldn’t want to change it for anything.

There’s hard work in football as well, but you can enjoy it. I enjoy training and getting on the ball and passing and moving. I prefer to have five sessions a week of football and five sessions running. I just enjoy it way more. I can’t stand athletics.”

Aged six, Heffernan started off at Ringmahon Rangers, whose alumnae also include Liverpool goalkeeper Caoimhín Kelleher and Preston star Alan Browne. He signed for Cork City in January last year and has been progressing well since then. British clubs have subsequently been circling.

“I was over at Preston this time last year and I was over in Celtic just last month gone. They were two really good experiences. It’s just going over, seeing what the life is like over there. What do you do on a daily basis and what do real top professional footballers do.”

Heffernan is content in Ireland for now, but may have a decision to make down the line, though as he points out: “I’m still young yet.”

Aside from his parents, Heffernan also has a number of other useful contacts to lean on for advice.

My dad is really good friends with [Preston and Ireland underage star] Adam O’Reilly’s dad Ciaran, so they’d always be onto each other. Ciaran’s a great coach and they’d be trying to help my game improve as well, giving me tips. I’d be onto Adam, dropping him a few texts here and there saying ‘how are you getting on,’ just normal conversations. He could give me a few tips every now and then, but it’s mainly his dad Ciaran.

“It’s good, because they’d give you the heads up. What it’s like as a footballer. What it’s like moving to England at 16. What the lifestyle is like over there and stuff like that.”  

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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