JOHN EGAN must be happy in his own company. Famously anchoring Sheffield United’s defence during promotion to the Premier League, he had to be.
Playing in the middle of three centre-backs, the other two, Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell who set off like jackrabbits at any opportunity in the now renowned overlapping system, Egan often cuts a lonely figure.
But there appears to have been a subtle change, almost gone unnoticed, since United’s return to the Premier League. In two home matches so far, the Republic of Ireland international has been seen in uncharted territory.
Against Crystal Palace there was much comment in the John Street Stand as Egan was sighted in the opposition box. Latterly, when Leicester City, spearheaded by Jamie Vardy, were the visitors, he made three forays in his own attempt to be the fox in the box.
Egan’s occasional release from defensive duties adds another facet to United’s attacking options. His 6ft 2ins frame is a formidable presence. The 26-year-old has only one goal to his name since becoming United’s then record £4million-plus signing from Brentford in the summer of 2018. The opener in a 2-1 win against Norwich City at Bramall Lane 12 months ago, a back-post header which beat Canaries keeper Tim Krul.
But Egan, if not prolific, is no stranger to goalscoring in more recent years, something which the statisticians at United’s Shirecliffe training base have noted. He claimed seven goals during his two season’s with the Bees and 11 at previous club Gillingham.
Former Blade Chris Morgan, an uncompromising centre-half who skippered the side when they were last in the Premier League, is a huge admirer of the man who now occupies his position in the heart of United’s defence.
Morgs, a living legend at the Lane, admires the Irishman for his no-nonesense method at the back coupled with an intelligent reading of the game. “As the one left behind he’s the one that makes it work,” Morgan told website The Athletic.
“All the talk is of the other two centre-halves flying forward but Egan is really key and should get as many plaudits if not more. A lot of organisation comes from him in respect of what’s in front of him. He’s really good at keeping hold of the likes of Ollie Norwood and John Fleck as they sit in.”
Morgan, twice caretaker boss of United and No2 to Danny Wilson at Chesterfield, sees similarities to the qualities of the current squad under Chris Wilder as the United of his day under Neil Warnock, both bosses, of course lifelong Blades fans.
“What stands out in abundance is their passion for Sheffield United and for football itself," he said. “People really play for them. The current squad certainly represents Chris and his values, just as we represented Neil. Where there are similarities is that, you can see from Chris's team, a pride in performance. It's just that the styles of play are totally different.”
Morgan, now 44 and who made 279 appearances for the Blades, also cites another similarity – leaders of which, he says, Egan is one. O’Connell, Enda Stevens, Norwood among others, including Phil Jagielka who when playing alongside Morgan “was a leader in the making”.
The Irishman acknowledged the contribution Jagielka’s presence has made since rejoining the club as he prepared for the trip to Chelsea, United’s biggest test of the season so far. “Jags has been briiliant,” he said. “He’s come in with a wealth of experience from the Premier League and international level, so in pre-season, getting to know him, it was always good to pick his brains about certain players he has played against.”
Egan added: “It’s great to have someone like that who you can learn from on the job and who can give you advice if you are coming up against x, y and z or who you mightn’t have played against before.”
Looking ahead to the challenge at Stamford Bridge, Egan said: “We believe that we can go there on Saturday, perform well and that we can imprint ourselves on the game and it gives us a chance of getting a [good] result.”
Egan’s first appearance for the Blades was forgettable. A 3-2 defeat at relegation threatened Walsall on a frustrating night at the Bank’s Stadium in March 2012, having just joined on a month’s loan from Sunderland. The Black Cats were in the Premier League (now they’re in the third tier), the Blades in League One and Egan almost homeless, also spending time at Crystal Palace, Bradford and Southend before finding his feet with a permanent move to Gillingham 27 months later.
Times have certainly changed for club and player, a mainstay at the Lane now being deployed as United’s best kept Premier League secret in the opposition box. Blades fans will be hoping it isn’t a secret for much longer.