It’s approaching a year since John Egan’s physical and mental pain subsided after a surprise visitor to the Darlington Woodlands Hospital.
The beaming smile of Martin O’Neill emerging through the door of the ward was enough to lift the stricken Sunderland player from the anguish that afflicted him the night before.
In just his fourth game of a loan spell at Bradford City, designed to sculpt him for Black Cats duty, Egan landed awkwardly to snap both his fibula and tibia of his left leg. Having his season written up in a split-second was harrowing, yet soon cushioned by the message delivered from Ireland’s newly-appointed manager.
“Martin told me I’d come back from this stronger,” recalled Cork native Egan yesterday, who turned 21 a fortnight ago. “It’s taken me 10 months to play my first competitive game, this week, but Martin was right. I’m hungrier than ever to succeed in football.”
O’Neill contributed to Egan’s recovery, handing him a contract extension last March in one of his last acts before Ellis Short sacked him four days later.
On Monday, as his former mentor was finalising a new venture with Ireland, Egan came through his comeback outing in a reserve tie at West Brom unscathed. That he was also grieving last year from the death of his father, Kerry GAA legend John Snr, made his return all the more significant.
“It’s been a long road back but I feel I’ve come out there other side a better player and mentally stronger,” said Egan. “There were some torturous times in there and it made me think about life. Thankfully, I’d my family and good friends around me staying in touch to keep my spirits up.”
Amongst those checking on his wellbeing were O’Neill and his Ireland U21 manager, Noel King.
O’Neill identified traits he admired in Egan above and beyond the defensive abilities that saw him compared to John O’Shea from his early teens playing for Greenwood.
“If heart and desire are anything to go on, John will cakewalk his career,” said the Derry man. “I gave him a squad number in the first-team at the start of last season, almost as much for attitude as anything else. He’s got a fantastic attitude to do really well.”
The planets have yet to align but there is the prospect of the pair reuniting for the Irish cause.
O’Neill is planning for the future and Egan is steeped in the habits attractive to the manager.
Having encountered Roy Keane too during his spell on trial at the Stadium of Light, Egan is sure the stature of O’Neill’s assistant will benefit the emerging players.
“Roy Keane is someone all Irish players look up to, so he’ll be a good addition. Being from Cork, meeting my idol when he was Sunderland manager at the time was incredible.
“From our U19 squad that qualified for the Uefa finals in 2011, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick have stepped up to the seniors. Anyone else looking to be recognised and break in, like myself, has to be playing games regularly to be considered. I’ve only just come back from injury so I’m not sure whether I’ll go on loan again.
“It could be the case that the new manager [Gus Poyet] might want me to stick around at Sunderland and push for a place after Christmas.”
Before that, he’s likely to be recalled on Monday by King for the upcoming U21 Uefa qualifiers against the Faroe Islands and Montenegro.
“Noel has kept in touch with me during the lay-off and I’ll be there next week if I’m needed.”
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