Saturday 1 October 2016

Rising stars light up lower leagues

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 22/05/2016 | 17:00

John Egan has just completed an outstanding season. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sporstfile
John Egan has just completed an outstanding season. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sporstfile

Young John Egan may well be doomed to forever be referred to as, "John Egan's son". That's what happens when you share a name with a father who happens to be one of the best Irish footballers of all time.

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But Egan Mark II has always looked capable of earning recognition in his own right. An outstanding defender at underage level for Ireland, he was on the verge of breaking into the first team at Sunderland before a broken leg in November 2012 saw the Cork lad miss the rest of the season.

At the end of the 2013-'14 season Egan was let go by Sunderland. That's the kind of rejection which has broken the spirit of young players in the past and Egan found himself in the much less glamorous setting of League One Gillingham.

However, he knuckled down to the task at hand and has just completed an outstanding season where he not only received the Gillingham Player of the Year award but made the PFA team of the year for League One. Now, after turning down a new contract from Gillingham, Egan seems set to move up and join Championship side Brentford. Brentford finished ninth this season and should be among the contenders for promotion to the Premier League next term.

This time round they were joint top scorers in the Championship but had the worst defensive record of the top 17 teams so it's clear why they've been so keen to get hold of Egan, even making a transfer deadline day bid for him back in January. At just 23, chances are the centre-back will play at a higher level still before too long.

Another 23-year-old on the way up is Chris Forrester who's also received a Player of the Year award at League One Peterborough United who he joined at the start of this season from St Pat's. Forrester has always been an intriguing figure to those who saw him in the League of Ireland where his extraordinary creative gifts have been catching the eye since he broke into the team at Richmond Park as a teenager.

That he hadn't been snapped up before this season is probably because of the willowy nature of the Forrester frame which makes him resemble a consumptive Romantic poet in a Ken Russell movie. The question of whether he could handle the physical demands of English football was uppermost in the minds of even his most fervent admirers.

The good news is that Forrester has passed the test with flying colours and should follow Egan up the divisions before long. Maybe we shouldn't have doubted him. Because Forrester bears more than a slight resemblance, football-wise, to another subtle genius, Wes Hoolahan, and has the potential to make the same impact for club and country.

Another League of Ireland old boy Pádraig Amond, once a prolific scorer with Sligo Rovers, seemed to have taken a backward step at the start of this season when he dropped into non-league football to join Conference side Grimsby Town. However, the Carlow striker has just enjoyed an extraordinary season, finishing top scorer in the Conference with 30 goals from 40 games, winning the Non-League Player of the Year award and this day last week helping Grimsby to win the promotion play-off against Forest Green Rovers and return to league football after a six-year absence.

Today Amond is back at Wembley as the Mariners take on Halifax Town in the final of the FA Trophy, non-league football's FA Cup. Which probably makes him the first Irishman to appear at Wembley in such quick succession since Kevin Moran and Frank Stapleton played for Manchester United in the 1983 drawn FA Cup final and replay against Brighton.

Not that Amond is the only Irish player to be getting a quick double dose of Wembley. Bandon's Conor Hourihane was there only a couple of weeks back lifting the Johnstone's Paint Trophy for Barnsley and will be returning for the League One play-off final against Millwall next Sunday after the Tykes overwhelmed favourites Walsall 6-2 over two legs in the semi.

The European Championships may be just round the corner but there are still a few headlines to be written by Irish players before that happens. Should we make it to Euro 2020, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Egan, Forrester and Hourihane are on the plane.

Sunday Indo Sport

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