John Egan must be Stephen Kenny’s favourite player. That is not to denigrate the theory that Egan belongs at a “Champions League” club, as Kenny insisted last year, or that the Sheffield United defender did anything but bend the Belgium game to his will.
The connection to the Kerry team of the 1970s and 1980s has been mentioned plenty – the late John Egan Snr has six Celtic Crosses – but there was an elemental force behind the 29-year-old’s play at the Aviva on Saturday that belongs in Croke Park.
Ireland’ s 3-4-2-1 system encourages the left and right centre halves to dash forward, picking off intercepts in the fashion of a Tomás Ó Sé or James McCarthy.
“His press was so aggressive from left centre back that he won some critical challenges and forced them on the back foot,” Kenny remarked without prompting. “Plus, he took the ball out and added some calm to our play. He was very, very influential in that period when we needed someone to be.”
Egan’s bull-by-the-horns approach also had him thundering into the Portuguese box to create the Aaron Connolly penalty that never was. And see him heading Ireland’s goal on that cool Faro night.
Beloved by the Blades faithful and with promotion to the Premier League still in their reach – they lie fifth in the Championship – the highest level of the game could yet coincide with his peak years.
“He is really positive about everybody in the camp, he really believes in us,” said Egan of Kenny, neatly side-stepping the direct praise. “When he speaks to us in training, in meetings and when he’s going through plans for games, he gives everyone confidence. He really believes in all the players and that translates on to the pitch. The lads take it on to the pitch and they know they have good belief from the manager to go out and play well. Everyone knows they feel wanted and the confidence that gives players is huge.”
The Ireland back five that lost 2-1 in Portugal had Egan partnering Dara O’Shea and Shane Duffy with Séamus Coleman as skipper, which forced Matt Doherty over to left wing back, where the Spurs man was outstanding.
O’Shea’s fractured ankle that night, after smashing into Diogo Jota, introduced Andrew Omobamidele to his rightful place on the international stage but just as the West Brom defender returns to camp Omobamidele is forced away with back problems.
“It’s great to have Dara back. It was a bad injury at the time. We were all on the pitch in Portugal and we knew it was a bad one. You never want to see that happen to any of your team-mates. It was a tough couple of months for him but he has shown the character he is and how strong he is that he has come back so quickly from that.
“It was great to see him come on against us for West Brom in his comeback game and now that he is back in the squad it’s brilliant to have him back. He is a top young player and he has got a really good head on his shoulders. I’m sure he has got a really bright career ahead of him.”