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John Egan: The Corkman who only ever wanted to play for Kerry...

...and ended up in the Premier League with Sheffield United. Ireland defender John Egan on his enduring love of Gaelic games, the influence and legacy of his famous father, and why, after facing Chelsea today, he hopes to see the Kingdom put a stop to the Dubs’ drive for five tomorrow. He talks to Liam Mackey.

John Egan: The Corkman who only ever wanted to play for Kerry...

...and ended up in the Premier League with Sheffield United. Ireland defender John Egan on his enduring love of Gaelic games, the influence and legacy of his famous father, and why, after facing Chelsea today, he hopes to see the Kingdom put a stop to the Dubs’ drive for five tomorrow. He talks to Liam Mackey.

As you would expect, John Egan is fully focused on Sheffield United’s visit to Stamford Bridge today for the promoted side’s first meeting of the season with one of the Premier League big guns.

But it should also come as no surprise to learn that the opposition’s famous kit won’t be the only sporting shade of blue on his mind this weekend.

As the son of the late Kerry Gaelic football legend with whom he proudly shares his name, John is also hoping to be in Croke Park tomorrow to cheer on the Kingdom as they bid to prevent those other Blues from claiming the fabled five in a row.

Which begged a leading question when we met the Irish centre-half at the Blades’ training ground two days ago: who does he reckon are the biggest underdogs this weekend — Kerry or Sheffield United?

“Probably Kerry,” came the grudging response.

Everyone thinks Dublin are going to win the ten in a row, never mind the five in a row. But I think Kerry will be quietly confident that they can cause an upset.

Egan certainly hopes so.

Born and bred in Cork but with the green and gold of Kerry football aristocracy running in his veins, he grew up acutely conscious of the fact that, 10 years before he was born, his father’s team had come up just short in their own drive for the historic five, succumbing to Seamus Darby and Offaly in one of the most celebrated and dramatic All-Ireland finals of all time.

“He was the captain that day as well so he didn’t like it too much when you brought that one up,” his son recalled this week.

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.

“If you win a game you’re buzzing and you don’t think about the game too much but if you lose a game you dissect it for the whole week up until your next game. 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.

“So, yeah, 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.”

As a youngster, Egan was a sporting all-rounder, dividing his time between soccer, Gaelic football, and hurling — “In Cork, you play everything, really” — before the game in which he would make his own name began to take precedence when he was in his mid-teens.

“I went to the Kennedy Cup and then started going for trials and stuff. I was still playing hurling and football for Bishopstown and Cork but when I went on trial to Sunderland and they offered me a contract, then I had to make a decision. So I parked the GAA and just decided I was going to go ahead and play football.”

Did he ever think that, as the son of such a famous player, going the Gaelic games route would have been tougher for him?

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“No, I think it probably would have been an easier route. Obviously it would have been hard to get to his level but I do think that if you’re good and your father has done what my father did, I think you probably get a better chance than other people. I think the route I took is probably the harder route. I wanted to play football, I wanted to come to England and do well.”

And in choosing to make that move, as he proceeded to explain with a smile, it meant he also avoided what would have been potentially tricky family situation arising from his own Cork-Kerry ‘dual eligibility’.

“I’ve always thought that if I’d stayed at home I probably would have played Gaelic football or hurling, whichever one I enjoyed more and I would have given everything to play for the county,” he said.

“But I don’t know if I would have played hurling for Cork or football for Kerry. I don’t think I would have been allowed play football for Cork! That was a big debate — so that was probably one of the big reasons I got on a plane (laughs).

“We’ll never know now but that would have been a serious discussion. Because, growing up, all I knew was Kerry football and, although I lived in Cork, all I wanted to do was play for Kerry. I used to go to Kerry games all the time: Munster finals, All-Ireland quarters, semis, and finals. I used to just support Kerry around the country.

“And, obviously, being from Cork, the Cork hurlers as well. So it was a bit weird: I was supporting Kerry in football and Cork in hurling.”

But surely there have must have been divided loyalties when Cork and Kerry played in football?

No. Always Kerry. Even growing up, I used to go into school on a Monday after a Munster final and, win, lose or draw, I’d wear my Kerry jersey. And I used to get a lot of stick for it.

When it finally came to making a decision on his sporting future, John drew heavily on the advice and support of his father. “He was 100% behind me,” he confirmed.

“I remember a few conversations with him saying, ‘I want to follow in your footsteps, I want to play GAA’ and he basically said, ‘Look, whatever you want to do, do, but if I was you I’d give football a go because I think you’re good and I think you’d do well at it’.”

Tragically, his father didn’t live to see his son go on to fulfill his potential in England as a professional footballer, ultimately reaching the Premier League and representing his country.

And it was as a young player with Sunderland, when John appeared to be on the brink of a significant step up that ladder, that he learned the devastating news of his father’s passing at the age of 59 in April, 2012.

Kerry’s John Egan in action against Offaly’s Pat Fitzgerald in the 1982 All-Ireland final at Croke Park, one of the most celebrated and dramatic finals of all time. Picture: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile
Kerry’s John Egan in action against Offaly’s Pat Fitzgerald in the 1982 All-Ireland final at Croke Park, one of the most celebrated and dramatic finals of all time. Picture: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile

“I was only back (at Sunderland) a week or two from a loan here with Sheffield when it happened,” he recalled.

“Martin O’Neill was the manager at the time. It was Easter weekend and I got the call to go and travel with the first team to Everton. Then I got the call the next morning 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.

“I went home for two weeks. Martin and everyone at Sunderland were just brilliant. They said, ‘just stay home as long as you want’. But after two weeks passed, I was just moping around the place so I spoke to my family (his mother Mary and sister Mairin) and, with the season nearly finished anyway, I said ‘would you mind if I went back and just train for a while and try to get back into a normal routine?’ And that was it.

“I went back, trained, met up with the Irish team that summer, the 21s, and then had a few weeks off and then straight back into it. Do you know, I felt more sorry for my family who were at home, because I was away, I was playing football and keeping my mind busy.

“So it was probably a lot tougher for them. But it’s still tough for me and the family to this day.”

The only healing balm, he suggests, is “time, really, just time. It never gets fully better. It gets easier and there are people who deal with this all the time. Life can be cruel. He’s up there looking down on me, I know that. And that’s the main thing.”

And time also has allowed pride to take the place of loss.

“Yeah, definitely. 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 videotape. 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.”

Egan’s connections to tomorrow’s All-Ireland haven’t gone unnoticed in England, where the Sky Sports cameras filmed him paying a visit to Sheffield GAA club St Vincent’s earlier this week.

“We were just chatting about the game this weekend and stuff,” he explained. “It was good to go down there and see Irish people playing Gaelic in England. They have their own pitch and proper Gaelic goals and everything.”

Egan has always relished exposing the native codes to the uninitiated from across the water.

“I remember a few years ago, I brought a lad from Spain who was in my Sunderland youth team to a Cork county final with me. It was Castlehaven-Nemo and he was looking around at the crowd — a big crowd, something like 10,000 or 20,000 — and he was like ‘how much does this player get paid? How much does that player get paid?’ This was only a Cork county final. He was like ‘oh my god, they’re crazy’. He couldn’t believe that they were doing this. He thought we were all crazy.”

One of the added attractions for John Egan of pursuing a career in England was precisely that it offered him the chance to make a living from playing a sport he loved.

“Yeah. It’s a professional sport, you get to play sport every day. If it was something like Aussie Rules which, to be honest, I don’t think I would enjoy playing, or if it was rugby, I wouldn’t really go. But because I played football from the age of five or six I really, really loved it too, just as much as I loved Gaelic football or hurling.

“And the fact you can go and play football every day, a sport that you love, and that it’s your job — that’s a huge factor. 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 GAA is it’s amateur.”

Would he be concerned if it was professionalized?

“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.

“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.”

Happily, he feels that, in Sheffield United, he has found an English football club with something of a similarly passionate community spirit.

“It’s hard to find, though. There aren’t many clubs like that but Sheffield United is definitely one. I saw that last season. We were going away and our fans were filling out every stadium, and then we got promoted and you saw the celebrations in the city, the passion of people.

You’d be walking around town and chatting to them about games. 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.

After the Blades won promotion to the Premier League last season, Egan was front and centre in the celebrations, his uproarious take on the ‘Allez, Allez, Allez’ tune turning into something of a viral sensation.

But it’s as a defender who is back and centre for the Blades — the one left holding the fort while Chris Wilder’s famous over-lapping centre-halves bomb forward — that the Irish international has been turning heads in his first season playing in English football’s top-flight.

But, first, he had to learn to adapt to the manager’s tactical innovation.

“It’s mad,” he chuckled. “I played against Sheffield United for Brentford and I remember the first time wasn’t too bad but then they came down to Griffin Park and I played against them again and I was thinking ‘what’s going on here? Where are they coming from?’

“Then when I signed, you do the coaching and you see where it comes from. It does take a couple of weeks to just get into a rhythm and find out where to be and get used to people bombing on and other people tucking around. But yes, it’s definitely organised and we have good shape about us.

“I think we kept 21 clean sheets in the league last year and you don’t get that many clean sheets without being well organised and well drilled.”

Egan’s presence in the top flight is an especially significant achievement for a 26-year-old who has had to overcome some serious personal and professional challenges — including suffering a broken leg while on loan to Bradford in 2012 and being let go by Sunderland in 2014 — in the 10 years since he left his native Cork.

“Yeah, 10 years is a long time,” he mused this week. “Do you know, sometimes you think it goes like that but then sometimes you think it’s been a long 10 years because so much has happened. It’s a tough world, not many people from my youth team are still playing professional football — out of 30-odd players through two years, about four or five players.”

After rejection by Sunderland, the centre-half turned a negative into a positive, first by making steady progress with League One Gillingham and then moving up to the Championship with Brentford, where his impressive form as captain earned him a transfer, in the summer of 2018, to Sheffield United for a club-record fee of just over €4 million.

And it’s been it under the inspired management of Wilder — who has now masterminded two promotions in three years — that Egan has really come into his own, in more ways than one, his discipline, authority, and leadership at the back crucial in helping United return to the top flight for the first time in 12 years and take four points out of their first three games.

“I always believed I could play in the Premier League one day,” he reflected. “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.”

A key to his slow-burning success, he reckons, has been a quest for relentless self-improvement.

“I think just day in day out, (it’s been about) trying to be the best player in training since I moved to England. Trying to get the best out of myself, never settling 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.

“So far I’ve felt like I’ve been comfortable (in the Premier League), I felt like I’ve done well. I think there are things we can work on and get better at but I do think we’ve stepped up and as a team we have looked like we belong in this league.

“That’s down to all the training we’ve been doing. We’re ready, we’re fit enough and we’ve got good players, so it’s just a matter of consistency now.”

And so it’s down to the Bridge for John Egan today and then, nicely coinciding with his linking up with Mick McCarthy’s latest Irish squad in Dublin, off to Croker tomorrow — possibly even in the company of his Sheffield United and Ireland team-mate Enda Stevens, someone he calls a “proper Dub, the biggest Dub I know!” That’s assuming, of course, that a golden ticket or two actually comes their way.

Speaking of which, Egan is clearly less than impressed at the cost to fans.

“I’ve put the feelers out and a couple should pop up but they’re €90 each so I might have to take out a loan,” he said.

Shocking. Every single (stand) ticket is €90, like. It shouldn’t be that much for people who want to go and watch their county.

“And I don’t really know how that can be when you could have a ticket somewhere in the heavens and be paying the same for somewhere perfect like the lower Hogan. I dunno. I just don’t agree with it.”

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