“There has never, at least in my understanding of Gaelic football, been a better inside forward than John Egan. I can’t say he was the best, but I can say there was no-one better” – Mick O’Dwyer.
Ask anyone in the Kingdom and they’ll tell you the Egan name is sporting royalty.
In the town of Sneem in County Kerry, there is a life-size statue of their former inside forward John Egan, one of the greatest GAA players the game has ever seen.
Mary Egan, John’s wife starred with Kerry at underage level, played camogie and has won a League of Ireland medal with Cork Rangers.
Across the water, John and Mary’s son John Egan is continuing to fly the sporting flag for one of Kerry’s most decorated families, starring for Sheffield United in their push for Premier League promotion and just beginning to break into the Irish senior setup.
“Yeah, he’s very very highly thought of down in Kerry,” Egan told Pundit Arena, speaking of his late father.
“It’s brilliant, I’m massively proud, myself and my family that he’s such a legend and really loved down in Kerry.
“His team were unbelievable back in the day and I used to go down to Kerry a lot when I was a young kid and I used to see it even back then we’d be getting stopped on the streets every two minutes by people wanting to talk to him, they seemed to be really looking up to him.
“It’s still the same when I go down there now I’m always John Egan’s son and I’m very proud of that because obviously, it’s a massive part of my life.”
Egan’s affection for his father rings true in his words. When the 26-year old first moved over to Sunderland he was just 16. To move to one of English football’s biggest clubs is daunting for even the most confident of teenagers.
The central defender, however, explained that his father’s belief in his sons’ ability was a huge influence on Egan making the move across the water, despite it not being a different path to the one his Gaelic football playing Dad took.
“Yeah, my Dad was a huge influence on my career, my Mum and Dad to be fair were both huge.
“My Dad pushed me a lot to make the move, he came over to Sunderland to see all of the facilities and seen me play and he just said to me ‘look you’re good enough to do it, just believe in yourself because I believe in you anyway, if I didn’t think you were good enough I’d tell you to stay at home’ so yeah he was a huge influence for me, always reassuring and always telling me to follow what I wanted to do.
“He never put any pressure on me to do anything he just said ‘do what you want to do and if you go to England I’ll back you 100%.'”
Egan is currently starring at the heart of one of the meanest defences in the Championship, with Sheffield United sitting third, just three points off the automatic promotion spots.
He also recently broke into the Irish first team under Martin O’Neill, starting in two international friendlies and making the bench for two UEFA Nations League games.
But it wasn’t always so promising for the Cork native who after five strong years working his way up to the periphery of the Sunderland first team, found himself released and without a club at the age of 21.
The manner of which Egan found himself ousted from the Stadium of Light, he explained, felt very strange to him.
“Yeah I was 21 during that time and when I was 18 or 19 I was flying it, getting on to the first team bench.
“There was a couple of managerial changes at the time so I ended up going out on loan to a few clubs then when I went to Bradford I broke my leg I think that was 2012, and by the time I got back fit, it was late 2013 early 2014 so there was obviously a few managerial changes.
“Gus Poyet was the manager when I got back fit so once I got back training I never even spoke to him really.
“It was quite weird being young and being in and around the first team to coming back from an injury and the manager not even knowing who you are so I knew then I needed to go out and play games so I went on loan to Southend in 2014 and did quite well we got to the play-offs, we were unlucky not to go up actually.
“Ever since then, like my move to Gillingham came off the back of that so it’s kind of been uphill ever since.”
Uphill is certainly an accurate way to describe Egan’s career trajectory since the disappointment of his Sunderland release.
In March 2017 he won his first cap for Ireland in a friendly against Iceland. Just five months later the 26-year old was handed the captaincy at Championship stalwarts Brentford.
Egan was keen to express the pride he feels each time he dons the green of Ireland and sticking to his familiar uphill trajectory the defender explained his next goal is to cement himself in the heart of Mick McCarthy’s defence.
“I’ve played four times for Ireland now, obviously, it’s every kid’s dream to play for their country and I’m very proud to do so but the last campaign I was only kind of in and out really so I haven’t really cemented my place in the side.
“I haven’t played a lot of games yet so that’s my next aim to try and break into the side on a regular basis and get the chance to impress on that stage.”
With the new regime afoot it, of course, meant the end of Martin O’Neill and fellow Cork native Roy Keane’s tenure in charge of the Boys in Green.
As someone who was a part of the struggling side, how does Egan feel about the last campaign as a whole?
“The results weren’t great but that’s football,” conceded the Sheffield United man.
“Teams go through transitional periods shall we say. I think looking ahead to the next campaign now I think everyone that’s Irish wants to get in the new managers plans and try and force their way into the squad and into the side and I think that we’ve got a good hungry bunch of players so hopefully we can do better this next campaign.”
The future indeed looks bright for Egan, with Sheffield United on the cusp of a Premier League return and a chance for him to impress at international level fast-approaching with the start of the Euro 2020 qualifiers.
As he continues to keep the Egan family name hugely prominent in Irish sport, the 26-year old’s roots are still firmly planted in Cork. Or Kerry. Or maybe both.
“I’m easy whether I’m a Kerry man or a Cork man,” laughs Egan, when quizzed about his county allegiances.
“I’ve always been a bit torn growing up going into school with the Kerry jersey on and the Cork accent coming out of me. Cork or Kerry, to be honest, I don’t even know what I am.
“All my family is from Kerry and I spent a lot of time there growing up but I grew up in Cork myself so I’m a mixture of both.”
Whether Cork want to claim him or not, one thing is for sure, the Egan name will always be royalty in the Kingdom.