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Wednesday 8 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Stephen Carr (left) and Kevin Zefi.
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An Ireland player of the past on guiding one being tipped to star in the future
Stephen Carr believes Inter Milan’s Kevin Zefi has the potential to go ‘all the way’ in the game.

THERE IS one player currently generating more excitement than most in the Irish underage set-up.

At 16, Kevin Zefi has already made his senior debut, lining out with Shamrock Rovers II in the First Division last year.

At 15, he became the youngest goalscorer in League of Ireland history when he netted in a game against Longford on 4 September 2020.

Almost a year to the day later, a long-anticipated move to Inter Milan was confirmed.

A memorable bow for the club’s U17 side followed as Zefi registered two goals and three assists in a 7-0 win over Cittadella. 

He has also been a regular for Ireland at underage level too, scoring a brace amid a superb 3-1 away win over England on one particularly memorable occasion.

An ample degree of hype has inevitably resulted from these feats, and the danger is that a sense of complacency sets in and he gets carried away with all the talk.

One player better placed than most to guide Zefi through this challenging period is his agent, Stephen Carr.

Like Zefi, Carr left home in his mid-teens to pursue a longtime dream of becoming a footballer.

The accomplished full-back ultimately achieved that aim, starring for Tottenham, Newcastle, Birmingham and Ireland amid a distinguished career, the vast majority of which was spent in the Premier League.

He knows what it takes to sustain a career at the top level, and is determined to do all he can to help Zefi avoid the trappings of the modern game and not go the same way as so many talented youngsters at Spurs that Carr witnessed gradually slip away from the sport.

The former footballer has been advising Zefi for a couple of years now. He also works with “one or two [other] young players that I don’t like talking about”.

“I like that age,” he tells The42. “It’s difficult but I like it because it’s early in their career and you can kind of get into their heads. You can start guiding them from your own experience, leaving home and trying to make it and having your ups and downs.

“It doesn’t always go the way you want it to go and that’s what you have to realise, it’s not plain sailing. You’re going to have highs and you’re going to have lows. Enjoy the highs and you just have to get through the lows and not get carried away with yourself.”

Based in Marbella, Spain where he has business interests in restaurants and a beach club, the majority of Carr’s recent communications with Zefi have unsurprisingly been via Zoom, though he can get over to Italy “fairly easily” if necessary.

Carr acknowledges that had it not been for the new Brexit-enforced rules preventing Irish players from signing for English clubs before they turn 18, Zefi would likely currently be on the books at a Premier League outfit.

He had trials at Liverpool and Tottenham, and there was plenty of English interest, but fate conspired to block this particular pathway.

Interest was similarly strong elsewhere in Europe and eventually, Inter was the chosen destination.

“Inter straight away wanted him, so it just fit,” Carr says. “They have a great history at the club. They’re one of the top clubs in European football. They’re going through a difficult stage after Covid and all. But I think it’s a great learning curve for him, it’s something different. It’s tough — a different language, a different way of playing that he has to get used to. But, rarely, an Irish kid goes abroad, so it’s an amazing opportunity for him. But it’ll take time for him to settle into their ways because it is different.

“I left home myself at 15 to England, and it is a massive character builder. It’s a lot different now, it’s a better setup in football with the academies, the family and what have you. 

“But the experience of playing in a completely different environment, I don’t see where you can lose from it. But it will be a test for him. It’s a test for anyone to go and leave home to go abroad.”

And so how has Zefi been faring since that eye-catching debut?

“He’s doing quite well. He’s been very unlucky, to be honest, he’s had Covid around eight times, seven or eight times he’s tested positive. So he’s had a lot of stop-start, which isn’t ideal. You just want to get going. He’s had to quarantine quite a bit over months. He’s hopefully now cleared of it. They get tested now nearly every week in football and he hasn’t had any issues [recently].

“He had a bit of catching up to do with his fitness because he’s been sitting around a lot. He started well, which is a boost, it gives you a lot of confidence starting like that. 

“They’re very happy with him there. He’s doing well in training, he’s doing well in games. So there is a great chance for him.”

Away from football too, Zefi is gradually adjusting to a completely new life.

The youngster lives in the academy with his Inter team-mates and he has school as well as football commitments to focus on, while he has been having regular Italian lessons online for some time now, with the club understandably eager for him to become fluent as quickly as possible.

His parents, meanwhile, are moving over to Italy “in the next week”.

Both are Albanian, though Zefi was born in Dublin and grew up in Clonsilla, where he learned his love of the game before first catching the eye of the wider football community at the esteemed schoolboy club, St Kevin’s Boys.

“I just tried to help the family from my own experience,” Carr explains. “Nowadays, kids can get carried away very easily. There’s a lot of chat about them on social media and people think they’re something before they are anything.

“As I said to him: ‘This is when the hard work starts.’ You gear yourself up to get an opportunity. Now, he has the opportunity. He’s done well in Kevin’s, he’s done well at Rovers, but it’s a different kettle of fish now.

“You see it on the European stage. Kids are making their debut younger and younger, so when a kid makes his debut at 17 or 18, years ago, it was a lot bigger.

“At top clubs, nowadays, you see 17-year-olds playing at first-team level in European football. So the next two years are very important. They’ll be patient with him because he has to settle in, it is a big move.

“So it’s about guiding him and keeping his feet on the ground. It’s working now. This is where you have to be proper on it, 100%. You can’t go a bit easy one day, you don’t get away with it. You do not get away with it. They’ll be expecting him to move up quickly.

“So it’s up to him now. You can only guide them so far. His family are very level-headed as well. His dad is always there, which helps. You can’t get carried away because you’ve achieved nothing. It’s just an opportunity you’ve given yourself.”

kevin-zefi Ken Sutton / INPHO Zefi has represented Ireland at underage level. Ken Sutton / INPHO / INPHO

Parents, Carr adds, can often have a detrimental impact on an aspiring footballer’s development.

“They’re massive. The parents have to keep the kids level. That’s what I grew up around.

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“There’s a lot more social media now. It’s everywhere. And you know men? They put their kids up and the kids think they’re something and then all of a sudden, they go through a rough patch and the kids are getting slaughtered, unfortunately. And they’re not able for it.

“So it is very important to have the right people around you to keep you level-headed.

“As I always say, let people talk about you. It’s about just doing your stuff on the pitch.”

Zefi is part of a small but notable group of Irish players that have been on the books at Inter, which also includes Liam Brady and Robbie Keane. The latter remains friendly with Carr, with the pair having played together for Ireland and Tottenham, and the agent says he plans to arrange a chat between Zefi and Keane, who joined Inter at a turbulent time in their history, making 14 appearances and spending less than a year at the Serie A club before transferring to Leeds United.

Zefi is currently with the U17s side, who lost against rivals AC Milan last week, and he remains a long way off Keane’s achievement of appearing for the first team as a 20-year-old.

Whether he even emulates Keane in specialising as a striker long term remains to be seen.

“He played as a striker the other day against AC Milan. He can play on the wing, as a striker and as a number 10 because he’s creative, he sees things. So when you go to the club, they find where they think is your best position. It may not be what you think it is, but they have the experience of seeing this with players, so develop them.

“But he’s been playing as a striker for Inter Milan, which is a bit different for him because he wasn’t used to playing as a striker as such. He played in the middle, he’s played in the hole, he’s played on the wing a lot. But it’s another string to your bow, it’s good if you can play in multiple positions. It gives you better options and opportunities rather than just being [restricted] to one position.

“They’re very experienced coaches in Italy. They’ll be watching him and they’ll see where they think suits him best that they can develop him. And it could be a few positions.”

Carr is optimistic that Zefi can have a good career in the game, but the intensity with which he repeats the message that attitude is everything leaves you in no doubt that he regularly drills this home to the youngster privately also.

“He can go all the way. I do believe it or I wouldn’t be [working with him]. But it takes a lot of things to come together. And that bit of luck, a manager that likes you. It happens. You see it at the elite level. A manager comes in and doesn’t fancy a player that was fancied by the other manager and he moves on.

“He has the ability. That isn’t in doubt. But he has to show the other side — his attitude and work ethic. Hopefully, he’ll stay away from injuries, but sometimes injury happens, it’s life, it can’t be avoided.

“So he has every opportunity. He has the base. But there’s many a player that has had the base to make it and didn’t.”

Carr continues: “If you want to be something, it doesn’t come to you. You have to go and get it. You have to work hard. There are different types of players. Kevin is very gifted, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to work hard. There’s no reason for any young kid or any athlete not to work hard. You can get anybody off the street and make them fit.

“So you should be as fit as you can be, look after yourself, have the attitude of being a proper footballer. Not just have a good game and ‘oh, that’s okay’. It’s not okay. That has to be every week. You have to be on it. You will have your days when you’re not playing well, it’s just life. He’ll have his days when he’s not the star man, but what he does do when he’s not the star man, he works his ass off for the team, so he gives something back in a different way. So it doesn’t change from all levels down.

“Unfortunately, there’s a thing with kids, they want it, but they don’t want to work to get it. They think they’re owed it a bit but they’re not. They have to go and get it.

“It’s getting tougher now. There’s more money in the game, they buy more players, not as many young players come through clubs and the competition is very strong. And every one of the kids is against you trying to make it. So you’re part of a team but you have to kind of have that bit of selfishness about yourself.”

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