The greening of Sheffield

Sheffield United is set to become many fans second favourite Premier League team given the influx of Irish players who will backbone their bid of top-flight survival this season
The greening of Sheffield
SHARP BLADES: John Egan and manager Chris Wilder celebrate Sheffield United’s promotion to the Premier League. Egan has shown huge fortitude to reach the big time. Picture: Molly Darlington

Sheffield United is set to become many fans second favourite Premier League team given the influx of Irish players who will backbone their bid of top-flight survival this season

The studio lights dimmed, and the make-up was beginning to be wiped away when Chris Wilder and John O’Shea continued their conversation off air.

Wilder, the boyhood Sheffield United supporter, who has a tattoo of the club crest, was celebrating his greatest professional triumph: Leading his hometown club back to the Premier League.

The visit to Sky Sports’ Goals on Sunday alongside O’Shea last May was another leg of the victory lap, a chance for the man, whose managerial CV to that point read Alferton Town, Halifax Town, Oxford United, and Northampton Town, to bask in the glory of the achievement.

Like so many of the battle-hardened band of brothers Wilder assembled at Bramall Lane from various rungs of the English Football League ladder, he had to do things the hard way.

But promotion to the Premier League was secured with a verve that set pulses racing.

The significant Irish contingent which had such an influence on that swagger sum up the spirit of endeavour better than anyone.

They have had to endure personal tragedy and turmoil along their respective journeys, as well as professional catastrophe and rejection.

But still they persevered, with each of their stories shining a light on the unseen sacrifice, challenges, often torment, that must be overcome.

This summer, Callum Robinson was added to the Irish ranks alongside John Egan, Enda Stevens, and David McGoldrick, an estimated £7m (€7.5m) needed to prise Robinson away from Preston North End.

But back in May, when Wilder and O’Shea met, it was Egan who was the man on everyone’s lips. His variation of the ‘Allez, Allez, Allez’ terrace chant went viral after promotion and the manner in which he led the celebrations so enthusiastically resonated with those who have overcome similar struggles.

“I couldn’t help but laugh,” O’Shea recalls. “For me, seeing all those videos of Johnny singing, the way he was with his team-mates, I had a good laugh with Chris Wilder about that. It just summed up the confidence Johnny has in himself now, how far he has come in those seven or eight years when I first met him.

Would the Johnny I knew back then be doing that? I don’t think so. But in a good way, because it shows how he’s developed on and off the pitch. He’s a really good kid.

Egan was only 18 when O’Shea joined Sunderland from Manchester United in the summer of 2011. Steve Bruce was in charge and rated him highly, making him a regular in first-team training sessions.

“But there were so many managerial changes, players were coming and going in every transfer window, so it was hard for any of the young players at the club,” O’Shea continues.

Bruce, Martin O’Neill, Paolo Di Canio, and Gus Poyet all took the reins during Egan’s time there — although it was 2012 which jolted every aspect of his life.

Egan barely played, suffering a broken leg on loan at Bradford City and needing 10 months of rehabilitation work — when he made his Ireland debut against Iceland in 2017 he sent a signed jersey to Sunderland’s head of physiotherapy, David Binningsley (now at Manchester United), as a sign of gratitude.

There had been heartbreak prior to that when his father, legendary Kerry GAA star John Egan Snr, died suddenly.

Egan spoke at his father’s funeral and the relationship with his mother Mary and sister Máirín grew even stronger.

The jokes about his county allegiances at Sunderland were a feature.

“There was always plenty of slagging,” O’Shea laughs.

I used to say to Johnny that he was worse than me with Kilkenny and Waterford; he had Cork and Kerry and I wanted him to make his mind up, I’d say to him: ‘Where are you from? Who do you really support?’ I’d laugh with [David] Meyler because he’s obviously a strong Cork man.

Egan showed that rebel spirit when he opted to leave Sunderland and join Gillingham in League One on a permanent basis.

“That was proof of his vision, that he knew he was capable of backing himself,” O’Shea feels.

So many players fall between the cracks when they leave the cocoon of the fringes of a Premier League squad. Suddenly faced with dealing with being a bona fide first teamer in the third tier, most wilt. But Egan thrived and, after two seasons, earned a move to the Championship with Brentford, where his upward career trajectory continued as Sheffield United made him their club record signing for an estimated £4m (€4.3m). That was usurped by Robinson’s arrival this summer — although United have broken it a further three times since ahead of their first season back in the Premier League for 12 years. When the always smiling, always happy forward passed his medical, one of his first acts was to FaceTime his father, Peter.

There were smiles, laughter and tears. This move is a second chance at a dream, one which Robinson and his family previously feared had passed by after a brief taste of Premier League football when he was an exciting 19-year-old with Aston Villa.

Despite numerous warnings from former team-mate Fabian Delph to maintain his work-rate, Robinson got comfortable in his surroundings at a club he joined when he was just eight. He grew up with his mother, Claire, and while she and Peter broke up when he was only an infant, both figures remained a positive, committed influence in his life.

Robinson describes his relationship with his father as like ‘a best friend’, while his mother is the woman who provides the level of support and comfort which he says inspires him.

It is through his mother’s side of the family that Robinson qualifies for Ireland, and ensuring that birth certificate for his grandmother was provided to the FAI was in itself a great source of anguish for his mother, as a spelling mistake on the cert led her to believe that her mother, who died in a car crash when she was only a child, may not have been Irish.

Eventually the error was rectified, and now her son, Callum, is set to be the latest Irish international to get the chance to thrive on English football’s biggest stage.

“I honestly think he could score eight to 10 goals,” former Preston, and current international, team-mate Seanie Maguire feels.

The way his game is, he might just get that little bit more time in the Premier League and it could suit him. He has fantastic ability.

Enda Stevens is another who thought his moment had passed him by, but now he has the chance to face up to the latest challenge in a career which began in the League of Ireland and included an historic Europa League group stages campaign with Shamrock Rovers before putting pen to paper on a three-year deal with Villa.

Then the progression stopped. A significant contract dulled his competitive instincts, a series of loan spells with Notts County, Northampton Town and Doncaster Rovers (twice) failed to re-ignite that sense of purpose, until eventually he landed at the bottom. Literally.

Portsmouth is on the south coast of England and it was there, in 2015, that he landed in League Two. He just so happened to find a kindred spirit in a fellow Dubliner at a time when he knew he was only one more bad hand away from being labelled a busted flush.

“I remember one of my first conversations with him,” Michael Doyle, the 38-year-old midfield veteran, who left these shores for Celtic and played for Coventry City, Leeds United and, coincidentally, Sheffield United, begins.

“We were only talking about this again the other day, I told him: ‘You ain’t going to like me on this pitch, but it’s not personal, I could be wrong a lot of the time but just take it’. Then the game started and he was like: ‘What the fuck is going on here?’ But that was just me, I wanted to push people, help them, and he responded to that. He had the determination to make the best possible career for himself.”

While Stevens, 29, Egan, 26, and Robinson, 24, are all either in their prime or approaching it, the longest journey of all to this point has been taken by David McGoldrick, the classy forward turns 32 in November and is enjoying a sublime autumn to his career.

It was only last year that McGoldrick, plagued by a run of injuries and bad form, was released by Ipswich Town and found himself training with a group of Nottingham Forest players — referred to as the Bomb Squad — who had been dropped by their manager at the time, Aitor Karanka, and ordered to work alone.

With no clubs showing an interest, McGoldrick instructed his agent to put the word out that he would be willing to go on trial to prove his worth.

He had spent time at England’s St George’s Park, as well as travelling to the United States to work with Dr Bill Knowles, a ‘reconditioning specialist’ who previously helped Tiger Woods combat his injuries, so when Wilder told him he would take a look it was the beginning of a fruitful relationship.

“There are very few people who would be humble enough at that stage in their career to do that,” former team-mate Sylvan Ebanks-Blake feels.

Most people who played for the clubs Didsy (McGoldrick) has would think they’d made it and shouldn’t have to go on trial, but he trusted himself to make the most of his chance and it’s great to see that he’s taken it.

Now McGoldrick, as well as Egan, Stevens and Robinson, have the biggest one of all.

There are no dimmed lights now, only the spotlight.

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