'It has not been an easy for road for me' - Ireland's John Egan on his path to the Premier League
Having worked so hard to climb the Premier League mountain, John Egan will relish his shot at the big-time more than most.
At the age of 26, the towering centre-back has finally landed in England's elite league via a route that has seen him embark on a mini-tour of England that has included spells with Sunderland, Crystal Palace, Bradford, Southend, Gillingham and Brentford before he found his launchpad at Sheffield United in the summer of 2018.
The move to Bramall Lane was already a step up for a player who had made his mark in the Championship over the previous two seasons with Brentford, yet the story that unfolded allowed the Cork-born defender to realise his dream.
"When we started the season, we probably thought the play-offs would be a brilliant achievement," he reflects, in an exclusive interview with Independent.ie. "Then you start doing better than some might have expected, you find yourself in the top two and you start getting greedy.
"We all realised quite early in the season that we were one of the best teams in this league and that belief as come from playing well and getting good results.
"Being up and around the top positions in the league has given us a taste of what is possible and getting over the line was a fantastic achievement for everyone at the club.
"Personally, it was a great story because it has not always been an easy for road for me. When I was released by Sunderland, I didn't know what would happen next because there were not too many offers coming my way that summer.
"The key for me at that point was to join a club where I would play games and Gillingham was the right club for me. Things then went well for me at Brentford and it was such an experience to be part of the Sheffield United story last season."
Egan believes the scepticism around the Blades' Premier League hopes ensured their minds were focused as they began to mix it with England's big-hitters, and he is convinced they have what it takes to defy the doubters and beat the drop.
"We know how tough it will be in this division," states Egan. "The four teams in the European finals last season were all English and that is what we are up against, but we have worked hard to get here and intend to enjoy it.
"We all have faith in our abilities and proved that last season. I don't think too many people expected us to come out on top when we were up against Leeds in the promotion race, but we matched them all the way and deserve to be in the Premier League."
Egan's solid start to life in the Premier League will also promote his claims to force his way into Mick McCarthy's Ireland line-up, as he will look to make his third international appearance in next week's Euro 2020 qualifier against Switzerland in Dublin.
With the number of Irishmen getting their chance in Premier League dwindling, the Sheffield United quartet of David McGoldrick, Enda Stevens, Callum Robinson and Egan could emerge as key men for McCarthy as he looks to build on the promising foundations put in place in the first half of the qualifying campaign.
McGoldrick, in particular, has emerged as a key man in the Irish set-up under McCarthy, with Egan suggesting his impressive display as a loan striker in the 1-0 win against Georgia in March was worthy of the standing ovation it received from the Aviva Stadium crowd.
"That was the best performance we have seen from an Ireland striker in a good while and I think that's why Didzy got the reception he did when we came off," added Egan of McGoldrick.
"The fans were just happy to see the team playing some good stuff and from Didzy's perspective, he took his moment so well.
"That's as good a display as I can remember from an Ireland striker in a long time and it is a tough job playing up there as the loan striker and having to put I a lot of work.
"You could see after 75 minutes, he was literally out on his feet. He had given everything and there was nothing left in the tank for Ireland. The main thing was getting the win and putting six points on the board, but the performance was the cherry on the cake and the lads deserve the standing ovation they got for their efforts. Hopefully there is more performances like that to come from Ireland under this new management team.
"It sent chills down my spine when I heard the reaction for Didzy. It was just incredible. Irish fans are the best in the world, they really are. They appreciate hard work and that's what they expect from their team and it felt different last week. Hopefully the buzz is back now and we can get to the Euros. We want to get the feel-good factor back into Irish football and last week was a great start to that.
"There has been a good buzz around the Ireland squad since the new management team came in and the performance and results have reflected that."