I’ve never doubted my own ability, says John Egan

In January 2012, John Egan was thrown in at the deep end. He had just joined Crystal Palace on a month’s loan from Sunderland. Dougie Freedman had promised him a couple of games and he was true to his word.

I’ve never doubted my own ability, says John Egan

After just one training session, Egan was handed a start for the FA Cup third round clash away to Derby. His first ever appearance in senior football. He had turned 19 just a few months earlier. No pressure.

But there was to be no baptism of fire. Just a steady, solid performance — something that’s become an Egan trademark.

“Looking back on it now, I can see how young I was but at the time I really enjoyed it and it made me feel like I could play at that level,” says the Cork man.

“Your debut is something you’ll never forget. My mum and dad came over for it. I played well, actually. We lost 1-0 but I went in there unfazed.”

Later today, the centre-back faces into another FA Cup tie. His current employers, Brentford, take in a high-profile assignment at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea.

The last five years are neatly bookended but so much has happened in between.

Within months of watching his son make his senior debut at Pride Park, Egan’s father John, the legendary former Kerry footballer, was dead at 59.

“I think of him all the time,” Egan says.

“There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think of him. He’s massive for me. It’s ironic he was a Chelsea fan. A lot of my best buddies would know that and that was the first thing they said to me when the name came out of the hat. It’s one that he’ll definitely be looking at from above. He would’ve enjoyed this one immensely.”

After a dream start to the year, 2012 was difficult for Egan. The trauma of losing a parent put everything in perspective but there were also professional difficulties to contend with.

Still on the fringes at Sunderland, there was an unhappy loan spell at Sheffield United and then another temporary move to Bradford in League Two. After delivering a number of impressive performances, he went up for a clearing header in a game against Plymouth in late-November. He landed awkwardly and fractured the fibula and tibia in his right leg. A double break. The following morning he was in a hospital in Darlington at 8am. Martin O’Neill was waiting for him to offer words of encouragement.

But, by the time Egan got back to full fitness 10 months later, O’Neill was long gone. His replacement, Paolo Di Canio, had little interest. It was a similar story with Gus Poyet. There seemed an inevitable conclusion.

And when Phil Brown took him to Southend on another short-term deal in February 2014, it was all very familiar. Back to League Two. Back to the grind. But there was plenty of game-time at Roots Hall. There was even a magnificent goal — his first in senior football — in his third appearance against Scunthorpe. A dipping, swerving volley from 35 yards. It was a neat metaphor. The entire experience proved a turning point.

“I’ve never doubted my own ability. I’ve never thought for once that I wouldn’t be able to climb the ladder. My self-belief has taken me a long way. When I broke my leg, a lot of people were probably writing me off. When I was out injured, I worked my socks off to get back fit and become a better player than I was before.

“The Southend loan move was where it all started. It kickstarted everything. My form was really good and we got to the semi-finals of the play-offs. We were unlucky to lose. And that loan move gave me great confidence going into the following season.”

Ever since, it’s been hectic. He was released from Sunderland that summer but plenty of clubs were sniffing around. He signed for Peter Taylor’s Gillingham in League One. A new chapter.

“When you’re a young player at a club like Sunderland, you need a lot of things to go for you to break through and it was just unfortunate. After being there five years, it was frustrating because I thought I could really have made an impact at that club. But it was all great for me and I’m stronger for it.

“Gillingham was where I wanted to go. I wanted to play some games, get fully recovered from the injury and show people what I could do.”

In his first season at Priestfield Stadium, Egan did exactly that. He made 52 appearances in all competitions, scoring six times, including a brace against Port Vale.

Last term, it was more of the same. The side were consistent. Egan was a standout and was included in the PFA’s League One Team of the Year. His list of admirers grew. Championship side Brentford were top of the queue. They wanted ‘a leader, a proper centre-back’, according to boss Dean Smith. They wanted Egan. Another step up.

“You get a lot of confidence from the move. It’s a new club, the club wants you, it’s in a higher division.

“The last three seasons I’ve been non-stop. In the two years at Gillingham I think I played about 90 games so when I signed for Brentford I was used to the cut and thrust of the Saturday-Tuesday thing. That spell at Gillingham did wonders for me.

“In terms of changing, I don’t think I have. The one big difference is that in League One you could go into a game at 70% or 80% and get through it. But in the Championship you have to be on it in every game because it’s a crazy league. Anyone can beat anyone.”

The last 12 months have been filled with personal accolades.

He’s made a seamless transition to the Championship and has been first-choice since he arrived at Brentford. But the 24-year-old is not the type to get carried away.

“I’m trying not to think too much about it but when I do look back, I have had a really good period of form. I’ve shown people that I can play in this division comfortably. It’s coincided with me staying fit and playing a lot of games. I always had the self-belief that when I stepped out on the pitch I could impress people no matter what level it is. I stepped up to the Championship in the summer and I’ve played every game since I moved. I’ve chipped in with a few goals. But I’m the type of person to just look ahead to the next game and the next training session. I never really rest on my laurels.”

The quality of his performances have led to talk of an inevitable call-up to the Irish senior setup.

But, right now, it’s just talk and Egan is quick to acknowledge that.

“It’s out of my control, really. A good few of the Irish squad are playing in the Championship at the moment so it’s a good place to be. It’s every kid’s dream to play for Ireland. Just seeing that green shirt — it’s always brilliant. Down the line, I’d love for it to happen but at the moment I’m just trying to concentrate on my form with Brentford.”

His form has been excellent. Egan has already racked up 29 appearances for the side so far and managed three goals. But it’s been a mixed season for the club. They’re in 15th place in the table and head into the Chelsea game on the back of successive defeats to Newcastle and Wigan. It’s a tough, uncompromising environment.

“It suits me a bit more than League One, to be honest. You’re playing with better players and against better players. But if you make a mistake in this league you’re more likely to get punished.

“When you dominate games, you have to capitalise on it and take the points. That’s been our Achilles heel this year — we just haven’t made our dominance count. We’ve got caught out a few times. Last week, we played Newcastle who are top of the league and we dominated the game for long periods. They caught us with a sucker punch in the second half and nicked a goal and nicked a 2-1 away win and that’s been our problem. In this league — and it’s the same elsewhere — if you go on a run for five or six games, you can shoot up six or seven places in the league because it’s so tight. It’s all about being consistent.”

Only five miles separates Brentford and Chelsea. But regarding everything else, the distance is a little bigger. Still, Egan looks at the fixture as a welcome break from the relentlessness of the Championship.

“You get to the stage where the cup is a distraction. The league is the bread and butter. Chelsea are the biggest team I’ve come up against. As much as I can say we’ll go there and have a rattle off them, we know the task ahead of us. Nothing is probably expected of us, really. But there have been much bigger shocks in this competition.”

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