Monday 20 January 2020

Memories we can believe in

Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

John Egan in the 1975 All-Ireland final swooping on a loose ball in the Dublin goalmouth, sidestepping a defender and shooting to the net with the outside of his right boot while moving to his left.

John Egan in the '78 final, taking a pass from Pat Spillane a second before Paddy Cullen arrives and flicking the ball in one quick movement over the Dublin 'keeper's head. John Egan a year later, running at the heart of the Dublin defence, swerving past one defender, sidestepping another and, confronted by Cullen, letting the ball fall from his hand to enter the net under its own momentum.

Those were the memories that came to mind when I heard last week that John Egan had died. We're a sentimental people and perhaps it's to our credit that when a sportsman dies we tend to exaggerate his achievements. But there's no need to do that with the man from Sneem. You can't exaggerate the achievements of the truly great.

It became a bit of a GAA cliché to say that John Egan was the under-rated member of the great Kerry team. He may even have felt that himself from time to time. But nobody ever really under-rated John Egan. It was just difficult for anyone to stand out when they played in the greatest sector of the greatest team of all-time. His full-forward line colleagues were Mike Sheehy, probably the finest forward ever to play football, and Eoin Liston, perhaps the best number 14. Sheehy, Liston and Egan. They sounded like a firm of undertakers and buried nearly every team they played against.

Behind them were Pat Spillane, the greatest wing-forward of all-time, and Ger Power, who would have been the best forward on almost every team to win an All-Ireland in the last two decades. I'm too young to have seen Seán Purcell or Seán O'Neill but, in my own time, I haven't seen any forwards who've been so good for so long, with the exception of their great heir Colm Cooper. And if Ogie Moran didn't catch the eye to the same extent it's because he was one of those footballers whose value was most apparent to those who played alongside him, in itself no mean distinction.

John Egan played a very special role in that wonderful attack. Because the significant thing about his three most famous goals is that all came at vital times in the game. In 1975, a young Kerry team were massive outsiders against reigning All-Ireland champions Dublin. They needed an early goal to settle them down. Egan provided it. In 1978, they'd been played off the field by Dublin and were floundering and five points down when Egan struck again. A year later, a Jim Ronayne goal and the sending off of Páidí ó Sé left Kerry just four points clear and down to 14 men after thoroughly dominating the game. It was Egan time again. He was the go-to man when things got tricky for Kerry. And it's telling that those goals came against the Kingdom's greatest rivals. For John Egan was one of those invaluable players who thrived when under pressure. If Sheehy's defining characteristic was grace, Liston's was power and Spillane's was athleticism, Egan's was directness.

The abiding memory is of him heading in a straight line towards goal with that slightly hunched run he had, soloing as he moved at blistering speed, clamping the ball tightly to himself as it came back off his toe. He exuded seriousness. When he handpassed the ball to one of his colleagues, the movement had a strange abrupt quality to it as though Egan were passing on an important message he was keen to see delivered.

Improvisation was at the heart of his talent. In 1975, a lesser player might have blazed his shot against a defender in the crowded goalmouth; on the two subsequent occasions he needed to react quickly to avoid being thwarted by Cullen, one of the great goalkeepers, in a one-on-one situation. When the possibility of a goal presented itself he did whatever needed to be done. He possessed those opportunistic instincts which are innate in the great goalscorers and probably cannot be taught. Perhaps the sorrow which sports fans feel about the death of a man like John Egan has to do with the memory of the joy he gave us in childhood and youth.

In the rickety stadiums of the seventies and eighties and on black and white television sets which left a dwindling white dot in the middle of the screen when they were switched off and went haywire when a car went past on the road outside, he did wonderful, beautiful things which lightened the hearts and gladdened the souls of many thousands. It's a fine legacy for a man to leave.

The Greek writer Lucian had a character in one of his dialogues say, "I cannot find words to give you an idea of the pleasure that you would have in the middle of the anxious spectators, watching the courage of the athletes, the beauty of their bodies, their splendid poses, their extraordinary suppleness, their tireless energy, their audacity, their sense of competition, their unconquerable courage, their unceasing efforts to win a victory. I am sure that you would not cease to overwhelm them with praise, to shout again and again, to applaud."

Nearly two thousand years separate us from Lucian but I'm sure the man would have seen John Egan as the embodiment of the qualities he prized in sport. Last week Ireland lost not just one of its great sportsmen but one of its great artists.

John Egan rocketing two shots past Sligo goalkeeper Tommy Cummins in the 1975 All-Ireland semi-final as the legend got under way, John Egan flicking the ball almost apologetically past Martin Furlong in the 1980 All-Ireland semi-final against Offaly which was an apotheosis of attacking football, John Egan thumping a shot in off the underside of the crossbar in the 1982 semi against Armagh, one game before Offaly upset Kerry's hopes of five in a row. He was captain that day and went home with a victory speech which would remain forever unspoken.

But perhaps the score we should remember him by is the one which will ultimately define many of those great Kerry footballers. Because while they were extraordinarily gifted individuals their skills found supreme expression as part of a team. And in the dying minutes of the 1981 final against Offaly that team contrived one of the great scores of all-time, one to rival the Barbarians' try against the All-Blacks in 1973 and Brazil's fourth goal against Italy in 1970. Like the former it involved a movement from one end of the field to another and like the latter it almost seemed as though the team had created it as a monument to themselves, a reminder that they had played the game in a way which had not been seen before and would not be seen again.

With the game still in the balance, the move began on the Kerry end-line with an interception and chipped pass by Jimmy Deenihan and the ball had already passed through a couple more pairs of hands when it got to Egan around halfway. He put the boot down and tore down the left before passing to Liston who deftly returned the ball to him. Travelling at top speed Egan played a crossfield ball to Sheehy who found Jack O'Shea steaming through. One tremendous shot later and the jig was up for Offaly.

Like any classic that goal bears innumerable viewings and thanks to the wonders of YouTube such viewings are possible. And as I watched it again and again last week, I thought of what the Irish-American novelist John O'Hara said when he heard of the death of George Gershwin, "George Gershwin died yesterday but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to."

John Egan's name will be carried on by his son John, a highly promising defender with Sunderland, whose performances for the Irish under 19 team last year suggested he too will do great things in major sporting arenas. But John Egan Senior will also be carried on in our memories. And as those goals played and replayed themselves in my mind, there was only one conclusion I could reach about a man who'll be remembered as long as a football is kicked on this island.

John Egan Lives.

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