Friendships formed on football fields twenty years apart bind together two of the country’s best know sporting families. But near tragedy has brought them even closer. Tony Leen addressed yesterdays and tomorrow with the Egans and the Cahalanes.
IF THE fall down the stairs at his Bishopstown home couldn’t kill him, the rumours would. John Egan died. Several times in fact.
But they always under-rated John Egan of Kerry. Having survived a decade as the under-rated goalador of the greatest gaelic football team, how could they under-rate his capacity to inch his way through eight months of learning to walk, talk and live again?
Watching him walk towards me, once again he exceeds expectation. A decade ago when the Munster GAA Council were selecting him on their team of the millennium and aficionados queued in an upstairs ballroom of the Silversprings Hotel for his autograph, Egan whispered to me: “I’m more famous now than I ever was playing.”
Maybe it was easy to exist on the shadows of Sheehy, Bomber, Jacko and Spillane, but Egan had a natural instinct and massive self belief.
Under-rated? “Who under-rated me?”
At Sunday lunch in Cork’s Rochestown Park hotel, on the left hand of the father is the son. John Egan is almost 18 and has answered to three names his whole life. John, Egan and son of John Egan. Flanking both are friends, good friends who would kick lumps out of them, given half a chance.
At least once a week now Niall Cahalane and Ould Egan, as he calls him, go driving. To matches, to Cahalane’s business calls, to watch training. Just jawing. Cahalane is 47 now but the wide-eyed child still, listening to Egan’s yarns from Kerry dressing rooms. Serious places, Egan whispers. Cahalane’s Cork debut was at the pitch opening in Sneem and John Egan, the local wunderkind, trotted in to the corner on the young buck from Castlehaven. “He carried me,” laughs Cahalane, “’cos he wanted me around the following summer to take me to the cleaners.”
Alongside Egan Junior is his best mate. Damien Cahalane and Egan have been kicking lumps out of each other since they were six. The Barrs and Bishopstown hurling. Soccer with Greenwood. Football between Seandun and Carbery. “He’d break my leg,” laughs young Egan. “And then half an hour afterwards, we’d be behind in my house eating the dinner.”
Fathers and their sons.
TOMORROW Damien Cahalane plays the biggest game of his young life, the All-Ireland minor final in Croke Park for Cork against Tyrone. Back as far as six, Ould Egan, who’s still not 60, would have Young Egan and Cahalane down to Coffey’s Field in Togher and out to The Farm in Bishopstown, working their technique left and right. It was a sporting menagerie. Hurleys, footballs, sliotars and rugby balls.
“Don’t take it to bed with you, but always keep a ball fairly close,” Egan begins. “And never be afraid of losing — or winning. People will tell you that they’re hard. The definition of a hard man is someone who has no fear of losing or failing.
“I’m looking at Damien now and he’s a dual Cork minor this season, which is a fantastic achievement. But I really wonder now with young fellas whether they are advised enough about their trade, about the football. It seems to me that the emphasis is totally now on the physical side of the game, drills upon drills. Nothing to do with the actual ball. In the old days it was all about catching and kicking which is why you had so many fine exponents of those arts in my time.”
When Egan and Niall Cahalane truck around the city on calls, the Kerry man tutors Damien’s father on how to be a better mentor. Egan’s learned from experience. His son was in the crosshairs from a young age, a marked man. John Egan’s son. “The name adds pressure and in many respects, it’s an extra opponent he has to overcome in order to establish himself,” says Egan.
“There will always be constructive criticism coming from people, but there’s the opposite too, simply because of who he is. People will be only too quick to put him down without giving him a chance to prove himself. You feel like saying and doing a lot of things, but I’ve learned to keep my mouth closed, thanks be to God. Not like my father when I started. He was very vocal. He’d see it as a personal attack. But later, he’d tell me ‘keep a cool head and a dry shoe’.
Egan Junior will ferret out an RTE screen in Sunderland tomorrow to watch the minor and senior action. Niall Quinn’s Premier League outfit put a professional contract under Egan’s nose less than two years ago, beating off a host of other clubs to his commitment. Chelsea included. The son of John Egan is just John Egan in the north east of England. Captain of Sunderland’s Youth team.
Settling in now that his father is over his hospital trauma. Last February, Egan fell down the stairs at home, suffering compound injuries that put him in a lifeless coma for weeks. Whispers of his imminent demise must have reached the north east of England too. But just over two weeks ago, eight months later, he came home from hospital. He’s still a little unsteady on his feet, but sharp as a tack.
“I feel good, I really do. I had a very traumatic accident but the care I received in CUH and Dun Laoire, and the way nurses, doctors and the medical profession looked after me was unbelievable. Sometimes they don’t get the best publicity but unless your life is in their hands, you don’t see what special people they are.
“I’ve been reconditioned in lot of ways. I thought I was smart in lots of ways before, but you learn a lot about yourself going through what I’ve been through. In another six months, if I keep progressing, I’m looking for my place on the Cork seniors...”
Quinn and Sunderland were good, giving young Egan weeks off at a time to be at his father’s bedside in Cork University Hospital. Young Egan hardly noticed if daylight turned to darkness. It has drawn them closer. When his father began exhausting rehab physiotherapy, John Egan sat and encouraged, quietly. Role reversal.
“He used it as a learning exercise too,” smiles dad. “He was asking the physios about various muscles and wondering how he could build up his calves to be like mine. You know what? It’s the only muscle in the body you can’t really build up. You have what you’re born with.”
Surnames, for starters. “You must always remind yourself that just because you reached a certain standard doesn’t mean that your young fella is going to do the same thing,” says Egan Snr. “Practicing the skills is the easy part of it in one way, if the young lad is enthusiastic enough. Where we can help now is maybe preparing him for a big occasion. Getting the mentality right, mainly in terms of not getting over anxious or afraid. Never be afraid. It’s like the fancied horse sweating up in the paddock. If you can get the mentality right, that will always give you an edge and let your ability speak for itself.”
The lure of professional sport has already been dangled under Damien Cahalane’s nose, but the whiff of local pride is a pungent deterrent. He comes from Castlehaven, like every Cahalane, and that is a statement of mind as much as it is fact.
“I would be quite critical but I’d like to think a lot of it is constructive at this stage,” Niall offers. “If you are talking to a 17- or 18-year-old, it’s hard to put it across at times because they see it as a personal attack. But for the most part, he’d be a reasonably good listener. I’ve been involved with Castlehaven teams since they were eight years of age, and I’ve been harder on him than others — it’s easier to criticise your own.”
Damien: “He’s a tough critic, but it’s good to have someone at home who has been there and done that. You have an edge that another guy doesn’t have because he knows what to do in certain situations, or what you should have done. And he’s not slow in telling you, but I know it’s for the best.”
Niall: “We used travel home together from matches, but now that he’s 18, he’ll travel with the lads. It wasn’t always easy in the car for him. I go back to my own father who didn’t play football but was very supportive, and still is, but he was a fierce critic. There were times I’d want the ground to open up and swallow the whole lot of us. But again, he was very passionate about it, it meant an awful lot to him. Remember, just like John Egan’s father below in Sneem, these were rural people for whom the GAA was one of the few things they had going for them outside their family and work.”
John Egan Jnr: “Papers cover almost every age group in the papers now in GAA and soccer, so since I was 11 or 12, it’s been ‘son of John Egan’ and ‘Kerry legend’ but you get used to it.
“My mother (Mary) would actually be the biggest critic. You could have a blinder, the best game you ever played, and she’d pick out the smallest little thing about your performance. But you need that.”
John Egan: “Mary had a League of Ireland medal with Cork Rangers, and played with Kerry under age and also played camogie. She’s
THEY’LL be on the phone again tonight, Cahalane bunkered up in the Burlington, Egan in his Sunderland digs. Swapping old stories, sieving out the pearls.
“Dad’s been a very big influence,” young Egan says. “It was a big decision, but once Mam and Dad went over to Sunderland and satisfied themselves about the education side of things, he always thought I should go after the possibility of being a professional sportsman. What does he say on the phone? Belief. You have got to believe in yourself. People will talk to you about believing in this and that, but if you don’t believe in yourself, you’ve no chance.
“I’d be talking to him the night before and the night after every game and he’s saying ‘how did you get on today, were you confident, did you believe in yourself?”
Damien Cahalane is nodding: “He’s (Niall) been hugely influential, everything from doing a bit of work on your own, to showing how to tackle a fella, to advice on mental preparation. You want to be like him anyway, but there’s bits of my game that are completely different to his. He tells me before every game to go out and enjoy it.”
Whether his father will enjoy Croke Park tomorrow is a moot point. Sitting in the stands watching his eldest of seven patrol themidfield jungle for the Cork minors. And then the agony of the senior sweat. On Thursday night we chatted and a father’s comfort was his son’s demeanour.
“I would have always been a big believer in enjoyment, which is why I played ‘til I was 42. We (Castlehaven) won an U-21 county this year, and the one thing most of them would say is that they enjoyed things. That’s important.” Cahalane and Egan say they never consciously moulded their sons in their own image, but others did it for them. The cognoscenti in Carbery wanted Damien to behead opponents when he was 12, his grand-father included. “When that fella (Damien) was 12, I’d say I lost more hair watching him than I did in the sink or doing anything else. But all we’re really there for is making sure they maintain an interest.”
Two things exercised Egan’s parents when professional sport lured him away. Loneliness and education.
“The best thing to happen John,” suggests his father, “was meeting his first real girlfriend 12 months ago, Laura Riordan. And all his ‘friends’ said they would ring him every day but that tends to drift. Laura never fails in the line of duty. Three times every day.”
Egan senior first travelled to Sunderland with some trepidation: “It was always the negative stories you hear about professional football. But I was amazed at how rigorous and thorough everything was with these people. It was beyond my wildest dreams.”
And his son’s. “After the Kennedy Cup (U-13 inter-county soccer) you might be hoping to get a couple of trials”, says the teenager, “but only Sunderland followed up. But I didn’t make a serious decision until Sunderland put an offer on the table when I was 15.I didn’t agree to anything at first, but gradually it dawned that I really wanted to be a full-time sportsman. It was a really hard decision because we had to take my education into account too.
“Other clubs then started coming in.
“Some I was able to discount straight away, but at Sunderland I had an immediate feel for the place. I love soccer, even though I loved GAA more as a young fella. But when they expose you to the facilities and the training... on site there’s swimming pools, physio facilities that cater for every little niggle. You are so well looked after — and then you remember it’s work.”
For the Cahalanes, it’s personal. “It’s a natural thing for us to gravitate back to Castlehaven,” explains Damien. “I played underage football in the city in street leagues, but I could never see myself playing with anyone else but Castlehaven. It’s the whole vibe of the place, it’s family. Everything goes into football.”
They’ll inevitably have bigger days ahead of them, but this will do until the senior moments arrive. The Premier League. All-Ireland finals. Both sons are too busy to notice the scale of their achievements to date. Cahalane recently played six Championship games in 13 days, one of them — a senior football game for Castlehaven against Ballincollig — five days before the All-Ireland minor semi-final. Madness.
The GAA is many things, but professional sport has self-evident advantages.
“Every day, we’re working on everything from long passing, short passing, heading and tackling,” explains young Egan. “It’s amazing how much you can improve at things. You are on the best pitches, playing with the best players, everybody is 100% everyday. We do passing drills at the start of every session. Even pre-season running is done with the ball. (Youth team manager) Kevin Ball has been unreal for me, and his approach is that everything should be done with the ball.”
His father’s envy is palpable. Egan retired at 33 in the GAA’s centenary year. “People always said to me, ‘John, you’re very under-rated’, and I’d say ‘well, who under-rated me?’ Seeing what John is doing now, and the expertise he is getting, I have regrets because I feel I could have been a far better player if I had exposure to what he has now. We were very green in many ways.
“At the time, the big emphasis for O’Dwyer was to be fitter, faster and stronger than any other team. Be physically better. They were pure stamina sessions, sometimes we thought we were training for an Olympic marathon. Lucky for me, I was a fast thinker and the first 10 yards was always important. Now I find the best therapy is watching kids playing because at our age, you see things so clearly, and how everyone develops differently. Too late for me, though.”
The grub’s finished now, but Egan’s only warming up. Even Cahalane is setting in reverential silence.
“The GAA is always special to me but now I can see that an awful lot of young fellas never realise their full potential in the GAA. How could they? In some respects, we’re almost too indoctrinated in the GAA, too focused on one sport when young boys and girls really should keep their options open. If you are a good listener, the more sport you play, the more you are going to learn and improve.”
FOR an hour and a half it was a special place to be. Lunching with legends and legends-in-waiting. The quiet attention, the paternal respect. Proud sons and their prouder fathers. When Ould Egan starts ráimeising, Junior tugs his trousers under the table. Quieten down. When the hotel’s John Culloty comes to take orders, the two boys opt for sirloin steak, Cahalane fish. Egan has a special request.
“Have ye any corn flakes? I got a fierce grá for them in hospital,” he smiles as he turns to his waiter. “I’ll have a nice pot of tea too.”
He devours Kelloggs’ finest, and it isn’t beyond his young fella to pat his chin clean with a tissue when required.
Tomorrow? “It’s so important for Cork to win this one,” winces Egan Senior. “They can be frustrating because you’d feel there’s a lot more in them. Down have an extraordinary tradition in All-Irelands. They are awful dangerous because they are not afraid of winning All-Irelands. Cork don’t have a settled team and they can’t seem to sustain a high level of performance over 70 minutes. They can go from the sublime to the ridiculous. I am dodgy about Cork, to be honest. They worry me, so do Down.”
A sermon to savour.
And just as we swing the door open back to the real world, a metal plaque on it catches my eye.
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