Friday 23 March 2018

'My Dad will always be there with me, he's in my thoughts every day. A lot of my traits come from him'

John Egan grew up as the son of a legend and is now focused on making his own history

John Egan in action for Ireland and (right) his father John playing for Kerry against Offaly in 1982
John Egan in action for Ireland and (right) his father John playing for Kerry against Offaly in 1982
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

When John Egan returned from the exhilaration of making his Ireland debut, he knew there was one thing he had to do.

The Irish jersey with 'Egan 14' meant a lot to him, but it was destined for somebody else. He took out a black marker, scribbled a message on the back and popped it in the post.

"To Binners, Could not have done this without you mate. Thanks for helping me achieve my dream."

This isn't a story that Egan has volunteered himself.

In fact, the 24-year-old is surprised when it's raised because he didn't publicise the fact that he sent the signed shirt to David Binningsley, the head of rehab at his first pro club Sunderland and a vital source of support during a dark period in Egan's life.

It was the physio who tweeted the picture of his surprise present, taken aback by what he described as an 'amazing gesture'. This is a testament to the value of the upbringing that the 24-year-old consistently refers to in a discussion at Brentford's training ground.

John Egan outside Brentford FC
John Egan outside Brentford FC

Footballers are rarely keen to dwell on the past; they are perpetually looking ahead to the next game. But Egan is slightly different because his memory bank serves as an inspiration for every part of his journey. He will always be shaped by 2012.

In the November, he broke his leg while on loan at Bradford, a dreadful setback that would result in ten months out of the game with 'Binners' as his daily source of support. That guidance was appreciated as the youngster was still coming to terms with the sudden loss of his father and namesake, the Kerry GAA great, earlier that year. The six-time All-Ireland winner was just 59.

It was a character-building time for Egan - who spoke beautifully at the funeral - and there is documentary evidence of the journey he undertook.

Around that time, Sunderland signed up to participate in a Setanta series called 'Football Scholars' that followed a handful of Irish rookies making their way in the game across the water. Egan was nominated as one of the subjects. It's still available online.

One minute, Egan is sitting in his car and pointing the sat-nav to start his loan at Bradford, enthused by the chance for first-team fare. The next he's at home on his couch, coming to terms with the injury that had stunted his progress. It's not the ideal time to have a camera crew following your every move; they also covered the reaction of his mother Mary and sister Máirín who spoke about John Snr's certainty that his son would make it.

"It's kinda weird looking back on that now," he admits. "It's a bit emotional, because it brought me back to that time and, even watching it, you remember that mindset. That was four-and-a-half years ago; it seems like it's flown."

John Egan alongside his legendary father back in 2000
John Egan alongside his legendary father back in 2000

He is accustomed to fielding queries about his father. With a smile, he explains that a feature of visits to Kerry is encountering punters who claim they played with him or against him in the distant past. It was only when he reached his teenage years that he fully grasped that the Cork-based guard was a legend back on his home turf.

"He was just my Dad, he wasn't the great John Egan to me," he explains. "It was just the norm to go to Munster finals or All-Irelands and he'd be mobbed by Kerry fans. Fair play to Mam, she was very patient; she could be somewhere with him and not even manage to get a word in with him for hours. It was only when I was older, around 15 or 16, that I really started to take in what he achieved."

By that stage, Egan was becoming aware of his own ability, and developing a confidence and conviction that shines through.

"I don't think there has been one second where I've doubted myself in my life," he says, matter of factly.

I wouldn't have come to England if I didn't believe in myself. And I've kept that even when I've gone on loan to League Two and then played for Gillingham in League One. I always believed I was good enough.

Where did that belief come from?

"It came from inside me... and my Dad," he continues, "He always instilled the word belief in me from a young age, he always had that self-belief, a mental strength and I think I've shown that from coming back from setbacks, getting into the Ireland squad. My Dad will always be with me, 100pc, he's always in my thoughts every day. A lot of my traits even come back to training with him. We were very close, from as early as I remember we were out kicking a ball together. Almost every day. Even Christmas Day, after dinner. There was a place called The Farm, down where near Cork City train.

"That's where we'd go; sometimes with three or four of my buddies. Just kicking the ball around and he loved it as much as us; passing things on. Thankfully, he instilled a lot of good habits into me early on, sport and football is about good habits. If you have those, you have a chance. And I've never forgotten that. It's great looking back at all the memories, I'm blessed to have had him as my dad but I wish he was still here today."

The Ireland jersey was always the goal. During the long grind of rehab with 'Binners', that was the goal, the light at the end of the tunnel. "We'd always speak about it when I was going through a tough day," he explains. "We'd both say, 'Just think of that green jersey' and this would be worth it.

"He's a top physio and he made some very good calls, just about surgeries and knowing when to push me. He got me back on the pitch better than I ever was and I owe him a lot for that really because if I had rehabbed wrong... you just don't know. I thought he deserved something, just a little token, for what he did for me."

There were some regrets in the aftermath of the Iceland game, the gut feeling that he could have done better. But he is well-liked by Martin O'Neill, a frequent visitor to Brentford, and his boss at Sunderland when the leg break happened. He turned up at hospital the next day and gave Egan a long contract as one of his last acts at the club. However, when the young pro recovered, there was no interaction with then boss Gus Poyet and the realisation set in that he had to move on. "There were a couple of whispers that Championship clubs might be interested in me but it wasn't concrete enough and I said to my agent, 'I just want to go somewhere and play'," he says, "Peter Taylor was the Gillingham manager, he came in and said, 'We really like you as a player and want you to be our main centre-half', so it was an easy decision."

Switch Two seasons there earned him the switch to Brentford and 52 games in his maiden Gillingham campaign meant a lot. "People looked at it as going down but I don't see going from reserve football to league football as going down," he says. "To me going from Sunderland reserves to Gillingham was a step up. You get nothing for playing reserve football... I'll probably be playing against Sunderland next season."

Conor Hourihane, another Corkman, was on the fringes at Sunderland too and has followed a similar path by using the lower leagues to build a reputation. He also debuted against Iceland, fresh from his big move to Aston Villa. The duo go back a long way and it goes beyond their chosen code; the first encounter was a hurling Féile game in Bandon where Hourihane's side prevailed. It still comes up in discussion from time to time.

Experience has made them stronger. Egan has relished a first full year in the second tier and, while he has found himself on the bench in recent weeks, the outlook is positive. "There's always room for improvement," he stresses. "I'm only 24, I've still a lot of learning to do."

This is one footballer who will never forget where he's come from.

Irish Independent

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