John Egan reflects on his long-forgotten debut for Sheffield United, on a bitterly cold night in Walsall
His memory is a little sketchy. Some of the smaller details, given the fact he’s amassed nearly 250 senior appearances since, are understandably difficult to recall.
But John Egan can still remember making the mad dash down the motorway, from Sunderland to South Yorkshire, before making his first appearance for Sheffield United only six hours later.
“I drove down from the North-East, got to the ground, and then stepped straight on the coach to the game,” he says, remembering that bitterly cold spring night in Walsall. “It was all a bit of a rush but I was delighted to do it. Even though the weather wasn’t great and the result wasn’t much better.”
Plenty has changed following Egan’s debut for United. Personally, professionally and at the club where, although he didn’t know it then, he would later go on to reach the Premier League.
Eight years ago, and four before Chris Wilder’s appointment sparkled a dramatic upturn in fortune, United found themselves in a very different place. Danny Wilson was at the helm. The team was pushing for promotion. But to the second tier of English football. Not the top-flight where, after being promoted from the Championship last season, Wilder’s squad had climbed to seventh in the table when the season was suspended two months ago.
Egan’s career trajectory has followed a similar path. A raw young centre-half learning his trade at Sunderland when Wilson signed him on loan, he now anchors one of England’s most effective defences and, after joining United permanently in 2018, is now an established international for the Republic of Ireland. Although he looked capable enough, there was little sign of the potential Egan possessed when he lined-up alongside Andy Taylor, Matty Hill and Johnny Ertl during that shock 3-2 defeat at the Bescot Stadium.
“That’s where it all started, with me and United I suppose,” Egan says. “Even though I only played one game, I can still picture it.
“Everything was a bit of a blur but I got a really good welcome in the dressing room because there were a few Irish boys in there at the time - Stevie Quinn and Michael Doyle - and as everyone knows we always look out for each other.
“That was the first time I’d really met the lads - when we got to the hotel for the pre-match - so the preparation wasn’t ideal. But I was delighted to be there and excited about everything. It was just a shame about the result really.”
After returning to Sunderland when his temporary agreement expired, Egan was also loaned to Bradford City and Southend before being recruited on a free by Gillingham. That now looks like a remarkably astute piece of business. However, after moving to Brentford on a free following two seasons in Kent, not one that benefited them financially. It speaks volumes for Egan’s progress with United, however, that even the £4m Wilder paid to secure his services now looks like a snip.
“It’s been amazing what’s happened, fantastic, I could never have dreamed it would be this good,” Egan continues. “I was a very different player when I came back here. I must have played over 180 more matches at the time and you learn something from ever one of them.
“But I’m just fortunate to be here. And not because of the promotion and everything. I feel very, very fortunate to have done it at such a great club and with such a brilliant set of lads.”
Listening to Egan speak about his experiences with United, it is impossible not to think he has found his perfect club. Wilder’s 3-5-2 system brings the best out of his talents. A bloke who happens to play football rather than a footballer trying to be a bloke, Egan’s down-to-earth nature also mirrors the personality of the squad.
The defender, however, works hard at his profession. His rise to prominence has not happened by chance. Even during lockdown, as Wilder’s charges were following fitness programmes at home, Egan took a conscious decision to also work on his mind.
“Like everyone else, I’ve been watching a lot of Netflix and stuff like that lately,” he says. “One of the things I’ve really enjoyed is that Michael Jordan documentary - ‘The Last Dance’ - which has been really enjoyable.
“But I also think it’s a good idea to take a really good close look at what other athletes are doing. You can always pick up new ideas, discover different ways of doing things, and then apply them to what you do. I’m a big fan of all the American sports so they’re something I always look at and try and learn from.”
The story behind Jordan’s rise to basketball superstardom has been particularly enlightening for Egan as he attempts to help United build on their success this term. One online article highlights how the six-time NBA champion was never satisfied with his achievements - a message which resonates with the 27-year-old given United’s position on the cusp of the Champions League places.
“Everybody was telling us we’d get relegated at the start of the season,” he says. “Well, everyone outside of Bramall Lane anyway. We never thought that. We knew it would be tough but we were always confident in our abilities. Now we’ve got another target to chase and then, whatever happens, another one after that - proving we can continue to get better and that this is only the start of something really big.”