In sharp contrast to the scarcity of strikers in the Ireland squad, John Egan knows he’s a victim of the riches in the central defensive department.
Between the three Premier League centre-backs of Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark and Kevin Long or Championship mainstays Richard Keogh and Darragh Lenihan, Egan is trying to break into the most competitive area of Martin O’Neill’s squad.
Many thought when he captained Ireland throughout the underage levels and turned down Manchester United to join Sunderland that the Cork native would have earned more than three caps by now.
Rather than allow himself to become frustrated, however, the 26-year-old is prepared to bide his time and enhance his credentials by motoring up the club circuit.
From the depths of being released by Black Cats boss Gus Poyet in 2014, Egan has rebuilt his career to stand within touching distance of a Premier League return. Sheffield United, who paid €4.5m to Brentford to sign him in the summer, are fourth in the Championship and expected to sustain their promotion challenge.
In the crowded market that is the Ireland centre-back’s club, he knows the final step would boost his international claims.
“I think I’ve gone up another level, from a personal perspective this season,” he admitted yesterday, cautiously optimistic another cap would be earned on Thursday in the friendly against Northern Ireland.
“Sheffield United is a really big club and I want to reach the Premier League with them.
“It’s weird that people thought I was taking a step down by joining Gillingham from Sunderland because I’ve been on the rise since.
“League One then was a major improvement on reserve team football and those two years earned me the move to Brentford.
“Football is a tough world. A lot of the lads I played with in the Sunderland youth team with are gone completely from the the game. Jordan Pickford is still going and doing really well and there’s only myself and a couple more out of 30 players.
“That’s a crazy low rate. I’m still in there and really enjoying my career.
“There’s huge competition for defensive places within the Ireland squad but I was happy with how I did in the Poland game in September.”
That he’s thriving in a three-man defensive formation for the Blades is also opportune. O’Neill has operated to a few different systems in the past year but the system utilising the wealth of central defenders seems to be his preference.
“The way we play it at club level, the two lads beside me bomb on so they’re just like full backs at times,” he explained.
“It’s just about getting the ball in the middle of the pitch and helping everyone in position. When the other lads do advance, I have to organise the rest of the team so we don’t get hit on the counter.
“I have to do a lot of organising because I’m in the middle of the pitch, effectively a sweeper with everyone in front of me.
“In the start, it took me maybe two or three games to really get the hang of it. I think our form and the way we’re playing just shows how well we’re doing.”
Following a year of Ireland’s defence getting shredded to pieces, O’Neill could do worse than offer his former apprentice at Sunderland into a starting spot on Thursday.