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Dublin: 12 °C Sunday 15 September, 2019
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GAA values, All-Ireland tickets and Premier League ambition: John Egan on what makes Sheffield United unique

The Cork native aims to be in Croke Park to support the Kingdom this weekend.

Premier ambitions: John Egan has settled into top-flight life in recent weeks.
Premier ambitions: John Egan has settled into top-flight life in recent weeks.
Image: Tim Goode

JOHN EGAN IS appalled by the suggestion. With Sheffield United away to Chelsea this weekend, their first taste of action against one of the Premier League elite, the thought of looking across at their opponents in the tunnel and being beaten before they’ve kicked a ball in anger is alien to him.

The same goes for facing champions Manchester City, Jurgen Klopp’s relentless Liverpool and the vaunted aristocrats of Manchester United and Arsenal.

Egan’s message is clear: Bring them on. Bring them all on.

“I don’t know how you could even step onto the pitch [and think you were already beaten]. If that thought crept into my head I’d retire, I think. I’ve never once gone out, no matter who I played, never once gone out and thought we’re going to lose.

“Even when I was six years old, ever since then. I don’t think there is any point in playing sports if you don’t think you have a chance of winning or don’t believe you can win. Everyone’s different but I think, as far as I’m concerned, every game you go into it’s 11 men against 11 men and no matter what badges are on the shirts you’ve got to earn the win.

“We work hard for each other, we play good football and we’ve got to try and be consistent with that and keep delivering week to week.”

Egan is 27 in October and has been a professional in England for a decade; signing for Sunderland as a 16-year-old and having numerous loan spells before joining Gillingham permanently and then moving to Brentford, where his form piqued the interest of Sheffield United whom he helped secure promotion to the top flight last season.

If only things were that straight forward. “I think just day in day out, trying to be the best player in training since I moved to England really. Trying to get the best out of myself. Trying to do a bit extra especially in those early years at Sunderland,” he begins.

“Trying to better my game every day, never trying to settle for less. You always think there’s probably a thousand people trying to take your place wherever you are. So you have to keep finding that motivation to get out of bed and improve every day. Because as soon as you stand still in this game, you’ll get overtaken very quickly.

“Do you know, sometimes you think it goes like that,” Egan says, clicking his fingers. “But then sometimes you think it’s been a long 10 years because so much has happened. It’s a tough world.”

A career-threatening leg injury left him battling in the treatment room for a year, while the sudden death of his father, John Snr, seven years ago left him bereft. So often football is boiled down to a game of highs and lows.

john-egan Egan on international duty with Ireland in Denmark. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Egan endured the most extreme nature of this on Easter weekend in 2012 when, after getting called up to the Sunderland squad by former manager Martin O’Neill for a Premier League trip to Everton, he woke on the morning of the game to the most devastating news.

“I got the call that my father had passed away. Football was the last thing on my mind and I was on the first flight home. And, obviously, people on that flight going back to Cork knew who my dad was and knew who I was. I was just, head down, hood up – just devastated. It’s still tough for me and the family to this day. It never gets fully better. It gets easier with time. Just time. Life can be cruel. He’s up there looking down on me, I know that.

“And the older you get the more you can appreciate what he did and how successful he was. When you’re growing up he’s just your Dad and you kind of see that (his GAA career) as secondary and something in black and white. Something just on a tape.

“Now, growing up, going to All-Irelands, seeing how hard they are to come by, definitely, you appreciate what he did for the game and did for the people of Kerry.”

Home for Egan is Bishopstown but the Kingdom, naturally, holds a place deep in his heart as the son of a six-time All-Ireland hero. “Growing up, all I knew was Kerry football and although I lived in Cork all I wanted to do was play for Kerry,” Egan Jnr continues.

“It was a bit weird, I was supporting Kerry in football and Cork in hurling. I used to into school on a Monday after a Munster Final and, win, lose or draw, I’d wear my Kerry jersey. And used to get a lot of stick for it.”

Weeks like this one – Dublin and Kerry and an historic All Ireland SFC final in Croke Park – used to make him pine for home but he has managed to deal with those feelings of regret.

And with Jim Gavin’s all-conquering Dubs primed for the five-in-a-row, the days teasing his father about missing out on the same feat as a result of Seamus Darby’s famous goal elicit fond memories.

“If you wanted to annoy him you could bring it up,” Egan laughs. “He wouldn’t be talking about it too much. It’s amazing – you can win six All-Irelands and the one you think about the most is the one that got away. It’s funny how sport works. That’s the way sport is. But it’s crazy – Kerry have won so many All Irelands and they still can’t get 1982 out of their heads.

“In any Kerry person’s mind deep down, they don’t want Dublin doing the five-in-a-row. But Dublin are a class team and if they do it, fair play to them, but I think Kerry have more than enough to cause an upset on the day. Everyone thinks Dublin are going to win the 10-in-a-row never mind the five-in-a-row.”

john-egan-1281984 John Egan Snr in the green and gold of Kerry in 1984. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Chelsea is not all that focuses the mind at the moment, the search for tickets on Sunday continuing in the background.

Egan will be in Dublin to link up with his Ireland teammates ahead of next week’s Euro 2020 qualifier against Switzerland and plans on attending with teammate for club and country, Enda Stevens, whom he describes as “a proper Dub”.

“I’ve put the feelers out,” Egan admits. “I’m waiting for a text. A couple should pop up but they’re €90 each so I might have to take out a loan. Shocking. Every single [stand] ticket €90, like. It shouldn’t be that much for people who want to go and watch their county. It should be half that. I dunno. I just don’t agree with it.

“I think that if you could stay at home and play Gaelic or hurling and it was your job, that would be a huge pull, but the beauty of Gaelic is that it’s amateur. I don’t think it would ever really change. If it went fully professional where there could be transfers, I think that would be all wrong. I couldn’t imagine playing for any other club but Bishopstown.

“All I do when I’m home is go up to the GAA club, have a kick around or puck around with the lads. That’s all I do when I go home really.

“You just have that sense of pride in your team and you’re playing with your friends growing up, you’re playing for your county, I think that has to stay regardless if they ever go professional in years to come. They can never lose that, really.”

It is a sense of belonging which Egan feels he has found in Sheffield, where he has chosen to live in the city centre as opposed to a plush suburb. At the club’s training ground, Range Rovers – blue and black and red and silver – litter the players’ section of the car park with plenty other high-end models.

Nothing new there, you might think.

The main building is three storeys high, the bottom of which boasts a full size indoor astro. The top floor is where Egan speaks from the recently refurbished media centre. Not so long ago, the room was a regular haunt for the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan and Ding Junhui, when it was rented from the club by a local snooker academy.

The latter was nurtured there while ‘The Rocket’ would arrive in the build up to the World Championships at the nearby Crucible to get some practice in.

There are other quirks.

stoke-city-v-sheffield-united-sky-bet-championship-bet365-stadium Manager Chris Wilder celebrates the Blades' promotion with Egan. Source: EMPICS Sport

While the immaculate training pitch being used by the first team is protected by a black mesh, the grounds are not hidden away from the public. Quite the opposite considering there are rows of maisonettes surrounding it as part of a larger housing estate.

“I said it to one of my buddies back home that it’s just like playing for a GAA club or a county, it’s just like playing for your parish. It’s hard to find. There aren’t many clubs like that but Sheffield United definitely is, and I saw that last season,” Egan feels.

“The passion out of people. You’d be walking around town and chat to them about the game for five minutes and stuff. The fans are so passionate about the city and the club, it’s a fantastic club to be a part of and play for because it’s got that community feeling. It just feels like the fans are really close to the club and the players. That’s definitely one thing that has struck me about this club, it’s like playing for a GAA club back home.”

But it is the Premier League where Egan now operates and with four Ireland caps to his name he is not content with his lot.

“Everyone has different views on success. My view is probably different to other people’s views. But I think if you can do well and make a career over here, that’s really good. Well, look, I have my own ambitions I like to keep close to my chest.  My view is just to do as well as I can and keep improving until the day I retire.

“I always believed I could play in the Premier League one day. My goals were to play in the Premier League and play for my country. And, having just got into the Premier League this year, I’m looking to build on that now.”

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About the author:

David Sneyd

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