Sheffield United: John Egan wouldn’t change his lower league education
Seven years ago, on an unseasonably cold evening early in March, a young centre-half strode onto the pitch at the Banks's Stadium after agreeing to help Sheffield United plot their way through an injury crisis.
He delivered a solid but pretty unremarkable display as the visitors, then managed by Danny Wilson, lost a League One fixture to Walsall. Indeed when he returned to Sunderland, one month and no more appearances later, only a few United supporters probably noticed he had gone.
How times, for both John Egan and United as a whole, have changed. Now an established Republic of Ireland international, the 26-year-old returned to Bramall Lane last summer after becoming, according to some measures, the club's record signing. Leaving Brentford, where he had spent two impressive seasons following 24 months with Gillingham, proved to be a shrewd move on both parties' part as Chris Wilder's squad gained promotion from the Championship.
Now preparing for first taste of top-flight football since waving goodbye to Wearside, Egan believes he is much-better equipped to compete at the highest level.
"Nowadays it's just really hard to go straight into a Premier League team without having experience of games behind you," Egan, who left the North-East without having made a senior outing, said.
"Personally speaking, my journey so far has been brilliant, I've loved every minute of it. Obviously, there were set-backs on the way.
"When I left Sunderland, I was kind of thinking someone in the Championship might give me a chance, but there was no-one really too keen.
"I've always believed in myself and that I could get to the top, and it's been good so far - and I still have a good bit to go."
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On the evidence of last term, Egan's belief in both his own ability and potential is not misplaced. After a difficult start, as he got to grips with the demands of United's three man defence, Egan emerged as one of the most influential members of a rearguard which kept over 20 clean sheets. Indeed, his partnership with Chris Basham and Jack O'Connell proved every bit as important as the goals scored by David McGoldrick and captain Billy Sharp as Wilder's men went on to finish second in the table.
Speaking from the Portguese resort of Quinta do Lago, where he is training with the Republic ahead of their Euro 2020 qualifiers against Denmark and Gibraltar, Egan backed United to impress next season despite acknowledging the scale of the challenge they face. Enda Stevens, McGoldrick and former United loanee Scott Hogan have also been called-up by Mick McCarthy.
"Our team spirit is great," he said. "It showed last season that we fight for each other. That's going to be huge going forward."
Eight months after his first stint with United ended, Egan suffered a broken leg during another loan spell at Bradford City. Despite seeing his contract extended by Sunderland, the injury stalled Egan's hopes of forcing his way into a side which was still competing in the Premier League at the time.
After easing himself back into action at Southend, Egan then agreed his permanent transfer to Gillingham.
Although he accepts it has been a long road back, Egan described his experiences in the lower leagues as a crucial part of his education.
"I knew I had to play games," he said. "I went to Gillingham and have played regular games and been on an upward curve ever since."