Sheffield United’s John Egan: ‘Our attitude is unbelievable, there’s still a chance’

John Egan and Sheffield United could part ways in the summer  (Getty Images)
John Egan and Sheffield United could part ways in the summer (Getty Images)

To listen to those at Sheffield United right now, you certainly wouldn’t think they are facing up to relegation as they sit bottom of the Premier League and 10 points from safety with five games to play.

“The attitude is unbelievable,” says John Egan. “Obviously we are where we are in the league but there’s still a chance to go out and win a huge game of football every weekend. That’s probably been the motto really, to get ready for the next one and try and win it.”

From talk like that, too, you certainly wouldn’t think Egan has just endured one of the toughest periods of his career with an Achilles injury. The Irish centre-half is a key player of Sheffield United’s most celebrated spell in the Premier League, in 2019-20, but harsh economic realities may mean both he and the club have to come to a decision in the summer.

It almost shows the fragility of the game in that sense, for all its wealth. Egan recalls his injury coming from an almost innocuous moment on the pitch. Sheffield United were playing away at West Ham in September and the centre-half went up for a corner.

“I just went to sidestep and felt like someone kicked me down the back of my leg.” Egan looked around and couldn’t see anyone, so asked West Ham goalkeeper Alphonse Areola what happened.

“He was like, ‘No one was next to you’, so I thought, ‘I’m probably in a bit of trouble here’.”

‘It was a partial tear of my achilles, where it meets the calf, so it was a bit of an unusual one. It wasn’t fully ruptured’ (Getty Images)
‘It was a partial tear of my achilles, where it meets the calf, so it was a bit of an unusual one. It wasn’t fully ruptured’ (Getty Images)

A partial tear of his Achilles has led to an unusual season for Egan personally, especially as he has had to sit on the sidelines through a dismal period for the club. The 31-year-old is now coming back to something like fitness, however, just as the team are coming to better form. Chris Wilder’s side have been unable to produce enough wins to claw themselves back towards safety, but performances were improving up until Saturday’s 4-1 defeat at home to Burnley.

That spell encourages him, especially if this is to be his last season. Originally from Cork, Egan has spent almost six years at United and has embraced the identity of the club. “It’s the longest I’ve spent at a club in England and we’ve had a lot of success,” he says. “When I look back on my career so far, all my best moments were with United. We got promoted twice to the Premier League, had a great year the first year, I broke into the Ireland team while I was at United. I’ve loved every minute of it. It’s a fantastic club. The Premier League is where the club deserve to be.”

No one would say that of this season, but there is almost a lesson there. When Sheffield United first came back up for 2019-20, they were revelations. Wilder’s “overlapping centre-backs” were the talk of the Premier League, confounding many of the Premier League’s finest sides. It put them above many of the finest sides, too, as United spent long stretches around the European places. Egan was at the centre of that, holding it together as Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell surged forward.

“That was a funny one. Obviously we did it in the Championship and a lot of teams struggled to combat it. When we went up, everybody started to see it, because you’re playing in the Premier League so there are a lot more eyes. It caused a lot of teams problems. It was all about overloads. Every team started playing five at the back against us to try and stop it. It was a fantastic time, but we focused a lot on our defensive duties, too, kept a lot of clean sheets. Everything just seemed to click.”

It was almost a lesson for giving a side the best chance of staying up, and there’s even an element of it with Luton Town now. “From my experience, it’s probably the best way to go unless you’re going out and have a few million to spend!”

This season, the relegation picture has been complicated by both Nottingham Forest and Everton getting docked points, and Egan reflects the view of most players: they just get on with it. They can’t fixate on an issue that confounds many in the game.

It’s been a survival fight like no other but United are focused on themselves (Getty Images)
It’s been a survival fight like no other but United are focused on themselves (Getty Images)

Relegation may bring economic realities, though, and Egan is considering his next step. He just wants to get back to full fitness but, out of contract in the summer, he accepts it might be time to leave. The possibility has led to him considering the transitory nature of football. “It’s part of the game,” he accepts. “You could be somewhere for six months, you could be somewhere for six years. You just never know.”

Egan has retained other links, like an apartment near Griffin Park from his time at Brentford. He found friends and family from Cork over in London all the time.

On that, it has been a tough period for the Irish national team. Egan’s time injured had coincided with a long period where they have gone without a senior manager, that may well last until September. For all the indecision over that job, though, Egan is optimistic about a young side. He feels there was progress under interim John O’Shea.

“It’s been a bit strange alright but it was great to see John get the two games. He was obviously a coach before and I was really delighted for him to get to lead Ireland out. A lot of young players have come through in the last few years, and they’re only going to get better with experience. We’ve got a really young squad now who are playing week in week out in the Premier League and Championship so there is a lot of excitement. Even the last couple of games, I thought we were very good against Belgium.”

Egan has watched Ireland’s progress while he has been sidelined (Getty Images)
Egan has watched Ireland’s progress while he has been sidelined (Getty Images)

The situation has provoked a lot of debate in Ireland about talent production, but Egan’s point reflects the fact it is a changed world. While the country used to have almost entire squads in the Premier League, that was when the competition was nowhere near as global as it is now. It has since become an international league, which means Egan is proud to have played in it.

“It’s a world league. Not many players get the opportunity. It’s why going up was such a huge achievement for us. We had to really push hard.”

It has also meant hard tests. That’s why Egan comes down on one particular side with the ongoing Erling Haaland debate. The 31-year-old has had to directly try and stop the Manchester City forward, after all.

“He’s an absolute goalscorer. Our thing was, when he’s in the box, someone has to be on him. We played with three centre-backs, so we were always checking our shoulders for him. You’re trying to always have an eye on him and outnumber him in the box. But trying and doing are two different things! You know, no matter how the game is going, if he gets one chance, he’s more than likely going to take it. He’s the best at just sticking the ball into the net.

“It’s one that you have to concentrate so much during the whole game that your brain would be more tired than your body afterwards, because you’re always concentrating, talking to people around him.”

It’s still the type of challenge Egan relishes. He’s ready for more.