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Dublin: 13°C Thursday 22 April 2021

John Egan a strong contender for Irish player of the season - and it could be about to get even better

The Sheffield United centre-back has been a key figure amid a remarkable season for the club.

John Egan scores a last-minute winner against Wolves.
John Egan scores a last-minute winner against Wolves.
Image: Laurence Griffiths/NMC Pool/PA Wire

THE PREMIER LEAGUE title race may be over, but an interesting subplot remains.

The battle for the European places has been highly competitive, and could be set to go down to the wire.

Much will depend, of course, on the fate of Man City. The Etihad outfit will learn later this month whether their Champions League ban is being upheld.

Pep Guardiola’s side are set to finish second and under normal circumstances, would be all but assured of a place in Europe’s top club competition.

Yet if the ban is not overturned, an extra spot for an English side will become available.

Currently, just four points separates Man United in fifth and Sheffield United in seventh. The way the Red Devils have been playing, it seems unlikely, but it’s not inconceivable for the Blades to get in the top five at this juncture, while a top-eight finish would potentially be good enough for Europe depending on the City outcome.

Should they achieve this feat, it would be a landmark moment for Sheffield United — they have never before qualified for a major European competition in the club’s 130-year history.

One man who has been integral to the club’s progress has been John Egan. The Cork-born central defender and son of a Kerry GAA legend, Egan scored a vital last-minute winner against Wolves yesterday in a game that could turn out to be crucial in the battle for European football.

After a shaky start to post-lockdown football — Egan was sent off amid a surprise 3-0 loss to Newcastle — he has excelled, scoring twice in as many games, while impressing in his primary responsibility as a defender to boot.

Although Matt Doherty and Enda Stevens deserve to be in the conversation, Egan, based on his performances so far, would be many people’s pick as the standout Irish player in the Premier League this season.

He has played 34 times in all competitions for the Blades and been part of a backline that has conceded on 33 occasions in 34 Premier League outings — only two top-flight teams, Liverpool and Leicester City, have a superior defensive record this season.

Commenting back in April, Stephen Kenny hailed the Irish defence in general, as well as Egan specifically.

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“We got the print-out of all the back fours from the top 20 teams in Europe. We went through it at length. I looked at the back four against Denmark — Doherty, Egan, Duffy and Stevens — and in my informed view, it is in the top 10 of back fours in Europe.

“The addition of John Egan changes the dynamic of the back four. The type of player he is, he gives us another dimension in how we defend and more importantly how we open up the pitch. That is a big plus for us.”

Egan has backed up those words of praise with his subsequent performances and despite only having eight caps since his debut against Iceland in March 2017, the defender must now be thought of as one of the first names on the Irish team-sheet.

It’s been a remarkable journey for the 27-year-old. Like Enda Stevens, Conor Hourihane, and so many others in the Ireland squad, he has had to bide his time to play at the highest level, spending a couple of seasons in the lower leagues.

The goal against Burnley meant he had scored in all four of England’s top divisions. Gillingham, Southend and Bradford have been among the stops on his career trajectory. He started out at Sunderland and was called up to the first-team squad for a pre-season tournament back in 2012 during the Martin O’Neill era.

“If heart and desire are anything to go on, John will cakewalk his career,” O’Neill once said of a teenage Egan. “I gave him a squad number in the first-team at the start of last season, almost as much for attitude as anything else.”

Yet an unfortunate leg break, which put him out of action for a year, as well as O’Neill’s successor Gus Poyet’s lack of faith in the youngster, were among the main issues that curbed his progress with the Black Cats.

But even while at Gillingham, Egan’s appetite for the game and belief that he could play at a better level was palpable.

“When you’re let go by a club that you could have made an impact at, there’s always the bit in you that wants to prove them wrong. I’m on my way to doing that now,” Egan told The42 in a 2016 interview.

Moreover, as recently as two seasons ago, Egan wasn’t even a guaranteed starter for Brentford — he played 33 out of a possible 46 games in their 2017-18 Championship campaign, when the Bees finished ninth in the table.

Now thriving in the Premier League, his story is a lesson to any young footballer of the importance of resilience in the game amid the inevitable setbacks.

Securing European football with a strong finish in their final four games would be a fitting conclusion to a remarkable season for club and player alike.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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