Former Sunderland defender John Egan has pinpointed Black Cats legend Kevin Ball as one of the most influential figures of his football career so far.
The Irishman joined Sunderland at the age of 16 from his native Cork in Ireland and spent five years at the club before leaving for Gillingham in the summer of 2014.
Despite not making a first-team appearance for the Premier League side, the 23-year-old hailed the impact his former coach had on him, which prior to his current injury lay-off saw him miss just two matches in 18 months, making 86 appearance for the Gills in all competitions as they battle for promotion.
Ball made 340 appearances for Sunderland during almost a decade at the club in the 90s and currently holds the position of Senior Development Coach at the club.
He has twice taken over the reigns with the first-team on two occasions as caretaker in 2006, taking over the final ten games in March, and most recently in 2013 where he oversaw three matches.
“Kevin Ball was my coach at Sunderland. Tough man and tougher coach but he improves you so much as a player. I think for my development, from the day I went into Sunderland to the day I left, I improved immensely and most of that was down to Kevin Ball.
“He brought me on as a player. He doesn’t let you slack off, even when you’re 16 or 17, he’s right into you trying to make you a better player. If you can take the criticism the right way you can make yourself into something.”
It may have been almost two years since Egan left the North East but he has fond memories of the place he knew he’d be signing for even at the age of 16:
“I stayed with Greenwood FC up until the age of 16 when I moved to Sunderland. I went there for a week and when I came back that week I knew I’d be signing for them. I knew I did well and the whole club was perfect for me. I just had a feeling that this is where I want to be going when I turn 16. Sunderland was home for me from day one. It was a good decision and I’m really happy I made that decision.”
After two years in the youth team Egan signed a professional contract in 2009, with the closest he got to a first-team appearance was being called up to the senior squad for a match against Manchester United at Old Trafford.
“The 2011/12 season was a breakthrough season for me. I was 18 and I was playing a lot of reserve team football and in November of that season I was called up to the first team squad for an away game at Manchester United.
“It’s surreal but you always believe it’s going to happen. It was a Friday afternoon when I got a phone call from my reserve manager. I was buzzing. I rang my Mum and Dad straightaway and they were over the moon.
“It was great to know your hard work and performances are getting rewarded, it’s a fantastic feeling. It’s a day I’ll never forget. Going from being a kid watching Match of the Day and then being involved in the Premier League at 19 was brilliant, I really enjoyed it.
“When I was 12 I was going on tours of Old Trafford and watching matches at the stadium. Next thing I’m walking out of the dressing room and walking past Alex Ferguson, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney.
“And you’re thinking these guys aren’t as big in person as you think they are. It would’ve been brilliant if I’d have managed to get on the pitch but all in all it was brilliant being on the bench and a great experience.”
John Egan was speaking to AtTheMatch for the Winer 2016 Edition of AtTheMatch Magazine. Read the full interview at www.atthematch.com/magazineClick here to stay up to date with AtTheMatch