This is a special weekend for Sheffield United’s John Egan. On Saturday he will play against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. On Sunday he will be one of 82,000 fans in Dublin’s Croke Park for the All-Ireland Gaelic football final, the showpiece event of a fabled sport and in which the Premier League player’s late father, John Egan Sr, is a legend.
After Egan Sr died suddenly at the age of 59 in 2012, a statue was erected to him in his hometown of Sneem, County Kerry. It was one way of remembering a man who won six All-Ireland titles during the 1970s and 80s, a golden period during which he was one of the finest players in one of the greatest Gaelic teams of all time.
A forward of subtle brilliance, many of his best performances came in finals against Dublin, the county who will oppose Kerry on Sunday. Egan Jr – and his Dubliner Sheffield United teammate Enda Stevens – intend going to the stadium to embrace the latest instalment of a sporting rivalry with a folklore of its own. It is about love and pride.
“The older you get, the more you can appreciate what he did and how successful he was,” says Egan of his father. “When you’re growing up he’s just your dad and you kind of see that as secondary and something in black and white, something just on a tape. Now, going to All-Irelands and seeing how hard they are to come by, you definitely appreciate what he did for the game and for the people of Kerry.”
Egan, affable as you please, was happy to discuss his father’s achievements and his own love of Gaelic games at Sheffield United’s training ground this week. In one sense the Premier League is a snazzy world away from Gaelic football, which remains an amateur pursuit despite its huge popularity (Egan Sr combined his sporting triumphs with a day job as a policeman). But the centre-back says one of the reasons he enjoys playing for the Blades is that United have retained a rooting in local identity that makes it akin to Gaelic clubs. Before that, though, he explains how his dad convinced him to aim for success in English football rather than at home.
Until the age of 16 he split his time evenly between football, Gaelic football and hurling. Then, with English clubs wooing him, he had to choose. Dad offered advice. “I remember having 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.’ That played on my mind. When I went on a trial to Sunderland and they offered me a contract, I had to make a decision. So I parked the GAA and just decided I was going to go ahead and play football.”
Was any part of picking football about avoiding constant comparisons with his father? “No, I think [Gaelic football] probably would have been an easier route. 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, you probably get more of a chance than other people. I think the route I took is probably harder.”
It got even harder when, just as he seemed on the verge of breaking into Sunderland’s first team at the age of 19, he was told his father had died unexpectedly after returning home following heart surgery. “Martin O’Neill was the manager at Sunderland at the time 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. I was on the first flight home. 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 – devastated. It hit me hard.”
After two weeks of “moping around” he asked his family whether they would mind if he returned to Sunderland “to just train and try to get back a normal routine”. Over the next three years he never made a first-team appearance for Sunderland but enjoyed loan spells at four clubs before joining Gillingham full-time in 2014. That was where his career took off, his performances earning a place in the League One team of the year and a transfer to Brentford, where he had two good years before signing for Sheffield United and winning promotion to the Premier League.
At Bramall Lane he has become the linchpin of Chris Wilder’s avant-garde defence. He is the middle part of a three-man backline in which the other two players, usually Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell, are encouraged to fly down the wings. This season United have introduced “overlapping centre-backs” to Premier League jargon and it is going to be fascinating to see how opponents cope.
“It’s mad,” he says. “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 I was thinking: ‘What’s going on here? Where are they coming from?’ I just thought it was chaos, to be honest. Then when I signed, you do the coaching and you see where it comes from. It does take a couple of weeks to get into a rhythm and find out where to be and get used to people bombing on and other people ducking around. But it’s definitely organised and we have good shape about us. We kept 21 clean sheets in the league last season.”
Blades fans will travel in numbers to Stamford Bridge. Then Egan will head to Croke Park to cheer on Kerry, who hope to stop Dublin becoming the first team to win the All-Ireland for five years in a row. Kerry nearly did it in 1982 but lost to a last-minute goal. Egan Sr was Kerry’s captain that day. “He didn’t like it much when you brought that up,” says Egan with a soft chuckle. “If you wanted to annoy him you could bring it up. It’s amazing – you can win six All-Irelands and the one you think about most is the one that got away. Funny how sport works.”