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The Bishopstown Blade: John Egan’s journey from GAA roots to the Premier League

Egan was a promising GAA star before he set off in pursuit of a professional football career.

Updated Jul 10th 2020, 1:58 PM

burnley-v-sheffield-united-premier-league-turf-moor John Egan celebrates after scoring for Sheffield United against Burnley on Sunday. Source: Clive Brunskill/NMC Pool/PA Wire

IN NORMAL CIRCUMSTANCES, there’d be a strong chance that you’d happen upon one of the club’s most notable members if you were to pay a visit to the Bishopstown GAA grounds at this time of year.

The rescheduling of the Premier League season due to the Covid-19 pandemic prevented John Egan from making his customary trip home to Cork this summer.

Nevertheless, his comments after scoring for Sheffield United against Burnley last weekend evoked fond memories of his days in the maroon shirt for many of the people connected to the GAA club on the southside of Cork city. 

“When I used to play Gaelic football was probably the last time I hit one like that,” Egan said of his 80th-minute equaliser at Turf Moor.

It may have been his first goal in a Premier League game, but former Cork senior football manager Brian Cuthbert has witnessed him rifling the ball to the net in similarly clinical fashion “a thousand times before”.

Egan’s father, the legendary John Egan Senior, coached Bishopstown to their first ever Cork Senior Football Championship final in 2002, with Cuthbert a prominent member of a side that suffered a five-point loss to Nemo Rangers. 

Nine-year-old John Junior played a part that year too, gathering balls from behind the goal during training sessions and keeping the players hydrated as a waterboy on match days.

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Cuthbert’s memories of him go back even further. Although he was a teacher – and is now the principal – at Scoil an Spioraid Naoimh, he first encountered Egan even before he entered primary school.

“John – and the same goes for his sister Máirín – would have been up in Bishopstown GAA club probably from the moment he could walk. I would have seen him growing up day by day from then,” says Cuthbert, who’s also currently the club’s chairman.

“When John was very young, I can remember meeting him over in Highfield Rugby Club with his dad because I was playing a bit of rugby at the time.

“John Senior had a myriad of sports equipment with him – rugby balls, soccer balls, golf clubs, tennis rackets – so I asked him what he was at.

“His response was that they were just trying a bit of everything, so from a very young age he was nurturing a love of sport into his son. It didn’t matter what sport it was, John Junior was always going to take to something.”

The early indications suggested that he’d have a decent crack at following in the footsteps of his father, who’s regarded as one of the all-time great forwards of Gaelic football.

The most famous son of Sneem won six All-Ireland medals as a member of Mick O’Dwyer’s hugely successful Kerry team of the 1970s and 80s.

brian-cuthbert Brian Cuthbert during his reign as Cork senior football manager. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“There’s a bit of a mixed bag with John Junior because half the time he claims he’s from Kerry and the other half he’ll say he’s from Cork. But what we know is that he’s Bishopstown through and through,” says Cuthbert, who the Leeside-born Sheffield United defender has described as one of his childhood mentors.

“John Senior would have been extremely proud to see his son play in the green and gold of Kerry. The way they framed it at home was that he could play hurling for Cork and football for Kerry!”

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, even though Premier League audiences recognise Egan as a commanding central defender. In Bishopstown, he’s remembered as a refined forward who had a promising future as a dual GAA star.

“He was pure class,” says Cuthbert. “I put my hand on my heart here and say he was probably the best underage player I’ve ever seen. I don’t just say that loosely. His understanding of the game from a very young age was second to none. He had a frighteningly brilliant understanding of how the game should work.

“Allied to that, he also had huge technical ability. When we played underage matches, normally the other team would have two players on him. He was incredibly gifted, scoring three or four goals a game without a problem.

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“Coming from the stock that he came from, his feet were always firmly rooted on the ground. He was an extremely likeable young man, very popular with his peers and there was not a hint of arrogance about him, even though he was extremely talented at sport and very good at school. 

john-egan Egan representing the Republic of Ireland at U17 level. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“The way he conducted himself ensured that people didn’t look at him any differently. He was just another one of the lads who happened to be very good at sport. Because of that, there are a huge number of people who are just extremely delighted to see what he has gone on to do in his soccer career.”

While excelling with Bishopstown, Egan was displaying similar levels of promise when representing Greenwood FC in the Cork Schoolboys League. As scouts from clubs in the UK grew increasingly interested in his talents, the appeal of Gaelic Games was gradually superseded by the prospect of earning a living from professional sport.

Cuthbert says: “What John’s father had was not only a love of sport, but an understanding of sport, the possibilities within it and the opportunities it could present. It’s something I spoke to him about a few times, and he would have said to me that you’ll only get two or three big opportunities in your life, and if they pass you by they might never come back.

“Once John Senior saw that there was an opportunity coming in soccer, I think he had enough faith and belief in John Junior that once he got into that mix, he’d push himself through it and make it in the game. I think he had an idea of where it was going to end up because he never doubted him in any way shape or form.

“Even up to the age of 16, John Junior did his very best to play as much GAA as soccer. How he managed it I don’t know, because he never missed anything for Bishopstown and at the same time he was on Cork squads and Ireland squads as well.”

At 16, Egan moved to England to begin a professional football career that has now taken him to the lofty heights of the Premier League. He has also played eight times for his country at senior level, including one outing as captain. However, there were some tough times to endure in the early days before he put his career on an upward trajectory.

INPHO:Billy Stickland The late John Egan Senior pictured in the Kerry colours in 1984. Source: INPHO/Billy Stickland

As a youngster at Sunderland, Egan had to contend with the untimely death of his father, who was still only 59 when he passed away in 2012.

“It had a huge impact,” the 27-year-old said of losing his dad in a recent interview with Tomás Ó Sé for Benetti. “Still even to this day you have your bad days. It was obviously the lowest point of my life so far.”

Before 2012 was out, he suffered a broken leg during a loan spell at Bradford City which was aimed at increasing his exposure to competitive senior football. Instead of continuing his development, he spent the next 10 months on the sidelines.

Sunderland, having denied him an opportunity to make a mark on their first-team, would eventually rue the decision to release Egan at the age of 21.  

For aspiring footballers, being discarded by their first professional club is a blow that most don’t recover from, yet Egan was soon thriving elsewhere. During two seasons at League One club Gillingham, the account he gave of himself was deemed worthy of a move to Brentford in the Championship.

Egan’s performances for the West London club then convinced Sheffield United to spend an undisclosed club-record fee to bring him to Bramall Lane in 2018, and he vindicated the judgement of manager Chris Wilder by helping them to secure promotion to the Premier League at the end of his debut season with the Blades.

stoke-city-v-sheffield-united-sky-bet-championship-bet365-stadium Egan leads the celebrations following Sheffield United's promotion to the Premier League last year. Source: Clint Hughes

His first English top-flight goal for the club last Sunday was followed by his second on Wednesday night. The 93rd-minute winner against Wolverhampton Wanderers has left Sheffield United on course to qualify for Europe for the first time in their history.

Back in Bishopstown, the temptation to lament the loss of an exceptional talent is suppressed by the sense of pride that’s yielded from witnessing the success of one of their own. 

“What he’s doing is important for our whole community here – the school and the club included. I see the effect it has on the kids when he’s around them,” Cuthbert explains.

“John comes back to the school for a day. He doesn’t just call in for 10 minutes. He calls in and stays for the day, going around to classes, chatting to myself and the teachers he had, and chatting to the kids. He’s just a fabulous role model and somebody we’re extremely proud to call our own. 

“He makes it easier for people who have big ambitions, and what are classified sometimes as unrealistic expectations, to actually challenge the things that people say you can’t do. This fella out of Bishopstown is a living, breathing example of that.

“He believed in himself and went on to achieve what he wanted to achieve, despite massive setbacks on a really arduous journey to get to where he is now. He has proven that having belief in yourself and staying firmly rooted on the ground can bring you to a place that other people might never expect you to get to.

john-egan Egan captained Ireland in last September's win against Bulgaria. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“John still has such a strong sense of home. He never lost the run of himself and he’s really rooted to where he’s from. Obviously it’s different this year, but usually when he’s back for the summer he spends his time in the GAA club. He’d be up there every single night with a hurley or a ball, playing around with the kids or his own friends. It’s just complete normality.

“A lot of the kids have the Ireland jersey with ‘Egan’ on the back of it now, which is nice, but quite a few of them – including my own fella here – have Sheffield United jerseys now too.

“It’s unbelievable for them, because guys like Mane, Firmino and Salah seem like they’re a million miles away, but then they see that this fella who was on the TV with them is suddenly walking into the club and saluting them by name. That’s jaw-dropping for a small child and it’s something we’re very proud of.”

And if he follows through on his vow to make himself available once his career as a professional footballer comes to an end?

“Seeing him playing for Bishopstown again would be something wonderful for us. Even if he’s 45 by the time he comes back I’d say we’ll still stick him straight in!”

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Paul Dollery

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