In the name of the father
John Egan tells Daniel McDonnell how advice of late Kerry legend dad fuelled his desire to break through
"After every chat with my dad, I felt like I could take on the world." – John Egan, speaking in The Church of the Real Presence, Curraheen, Cork in April 2012
When young John Egan spoke at the funeral of his father and namesake, he looked down at an audience packed with the great and the good of the sporting world.
They had come to honour a Kerry legend, a winner of six All-Irelands and five All Stars in the golden era of the late '70s and early '80s. His team-mates stood alongside rivals from Dublin and Offaly as a mark of respect for a man they admired. There was a good representation from the Cork GAA community too, honouring a man who ended up living amongst them as a garda raising a family.
One can only imagine how daunting it was for a teenager to face such a huge crowd but John Jnr, who was in England pursuing his football dream at Sunderland when he heard the news of his father's sudden death at the age of just 59, had the composure to deal with it. He nailed his articulate and poignant tribute by simply speaking from the heart. The following day's papers reported them extensively.
"If I turn out to be half the man you are, I know I can't go wrong," he said, in keeping with his general theme. "I'll always be your son and you will always be my hero."
* * * * *
"There was a savage turnout," reflected Egan last week, speaking from the hotel in Southend, a seaside resort in Essex, that represents his home for this month. He handled the sombre occasion well, but the grieving process for his family is ongoing.
"You don't just get over something like that," he says. "It has been a rough couple of years since then."
The spirit of his father lives with the 21-year-old every day, however, and he has needed that inspiration to negotiate the choppy waters of the football industry. Much as he was encouraged to take on the world, fate has delivered moments where it has appeared that the world is conspiring against him.
Finally, the pendulum has swung in his favour. All going to plan, he will line out for Southend United against Oxford United tonight in front of the TV cameras, his sixth appearance in the space of his agreed 28-day loan spell. League Two is short on glitz, but every 90-minute opportunity means a great deal to the 6ft Irishman.
His CV makes that clear. This is only the 13th competitive senior outing of his career, a stat which illustrates the extent to which injuries have curtailed his development.
The evidence has been documented in the four-part Setanta Ireland series 'Football Scholars', which finishes up this evening. Egan is the eldest of a group of young Irishman whose stories are tracked in a concept that has demonstrated the difficulty of leaving home in search of success in England.
It was filmed during the 2012/13 season, and captures the heartbreak when the eager defender is taken away from reserve-team football for the excitement of a loan spell at Bradford only to break his leg and face up to the devastating reality of a protracted spell of rehab. Only now, after a painstaking road to full fitness, has he received another opportunity at first-team level.
Martin O'Neill, who rated Egan highly, made life a bit easier by ensuring a contract extension until the end of this season before he left the Stadium of Light. But last summer was still a tough experience as he reported for duty ahead of schedule along with Lee Cattermole and Steven Fletcher, spending long days in the gym on an exercise bike, lifting weights or whatever the physio ordered.
"The building was quiet," he reflects. "There was no buzz, no nothing."
He derived strength from his family, with his mother Helena and sister Mairin a constant source of support. And, of course, there was the absent influence of the man himself.
"Up until Dad passed away, I learned something every day off him," he says. "I was lucky to be such good friends with him. When I was younger and getting offered contracts to go to England, I thought about staying and doing the Leaving Cert and playing Gaelic because that was a big deal to me. But he wanted me to go over more than anything, to push myself.
"I always knew what he had achieved, that he was a legend. I couldn't walk 10 yards down the street with him before remembering that – and that was in Cork. And he never lost that desire to compete, no matter what it was. If he was doing a gym session, he'd always want to beat the trainer. He had a lot of belief, a lot of confidence, and he taught me to go across without any fear. I'll always have that with me."
Perseverance has helped to bring the Irish U-21 international this far. He watched the youths at the first rung of the ladder on 'Football Scholars' and thought about the players from his original crop that have already drifted from the game. Half of his Black Cats generation are still going, although they are finding their feet on loan as opposed to featuring under Gus Poyet. "It's so hard to make the breakthrough now," he sighs.
Shorter stays with Crystal Palace, Sheffield United and Bradford in his youth prepared him for the Southend experience, and he arrived to find a familiar face in the dressing-room with Dubliner Conor Clifford, formerly of Chelsea, now seeking to rebuild his career under Phil Brown with the promotion chasers. The pair have represented Ireland together at underage level and can share tales of the highs and lows.
Living out of a hotel is no inconvenience. "Give me a bed and food and I don't mind once I'm playing games," he laughs. Still, a bit of extra company is always welcome and his good friend, the Cork dual star Damien Cahalane, is due over this week. They played together for Greenwood in their youth, part of a group of pals that were also there for Egan in the testing times.
Cahalane can also vouch for Egan's claim that his wonder goal against Scunthorpe a fortnight ago – a 30-yard volley which became a Sky Sports News and YouTube sensation – was always part of his repertoire.
"That was all a bit of a whirlwind really," laughs the unlikely Matt Le Tissier impersonator as he discusses his first senior goal. "I was getting sent a lot of messages about it, and I was saying that I had it in the locker. When I was with Greenwood when I was younger, I'd score a few like that."
The publicity was welcome, especially with a degree of uncertainty surrounding the summer when his contract expires. Egan is delaying thinking about that because his mind is simply adjusting to the novelty of regular football.
"In my first two weeks at Southend, I played five games including the Irish U-21 game with Montenegro. Before that, I'd played two reserve matches since January," he explains.
"It's tough on the body, and it's taking a while to get used to it. At first, the legs stiffened up, the body stiffened up, but we get good recovery and just have to be sensible and eat the right food. It's just nice to wake up knowing there's a match at the weekend."
Lengthy spells on the sidelines have a bad habit of erasing names from the memory, so this is a crucial period in his journey. His character and background naturally lends itself to goodwill and the likes of O'Neill, Niall Quinn and fellow injury victim David Meyler have always kept Egan in their thoughts. Deep down, though, he knows that the next phase will be shaped by his own mental fortitude.
"I know if I keep working hard and keep improving, things can go my way," he asserts. He's John Egan by name, John Egan by nature.
SOUTHEND V OXFORD,
LIVE, SKY SPORTS 1, 7.45