Belfast Telegraph

Jonny be good? It's more like Jonny be better for Evans

By Steven Beacom

It was in a newsagents in Porto airport. The great Luis Figo had just picked up a paper when I asked him if he had a couple of minutes for a chat.

He looked as surprised by the request as when a Barcelona fan threw a pig's head at him following his controversial move to Real Madrid, but he was still good enough to stand and talk about what he had witnessed the night before.

One man was on his mind.

It should have been Cristiano Ronaldo. It wasn't.

In last October's World Cup qualifier the Real Madrid superstar was winning his 100th cap for Portugal with Northern Ireland the opposition (or lambs to the slaughter as one Lisbon- based journalist told me prior to kick-off).

Figo, a winner of 127 caps and like Ronaldo a god in his country, had been invited to present a memento to the former Manchester United hero before the match to mark the special occasion.

He then took his place in the plush seats expecting to watch Cristiano turn on the style, score a few classy goals and earn the home side the comfortable victory as predicted.

Instead he was taken aback by the magnificent performance of Ronaldo's former Old Trafford team-mate Jonny Evans.

The whole Northern Ireland team did themselves proud that night deservedly drawing 1-1, but it was Evans who stood out as a colossus at the back as Portugal mounted attack after attack.And Figo, a man who spent all of his hugely successful career trying to bamboozle defenders, was suitably impressed.

In the newsagents he told me that the performance from Evans was "world class" and "playing like that he could be anything he wanted to be."

High praise indeed. I'm sure Evans would have appreciated it all the more given who it came from.

The thing is Jonny hasn't really lived up to the billing since which is disappointing, for the player himself as much as anyone else.

You see, I'm with Figo here, and I've thought it since watching Evans early on in his Northern Ireland career, which began with a stirring debut at left-back in the famous 3-2 victory over Spain in 2006, and also when he was beginning to shine at Sunderland on loan before returning to play on a regular basis and win honours with Manchester United.

Jonny Evans is one class player... I'd go as far to say that the 25-year-old has so much about him that if he applies himself and plays to his potential he will go on to become one of the true greats for Northern Ireland.

Over the last few years I've felt United are stronger with him in the side than out of it, and maybe that's something for David Moyes to consider especially with Evans not having played for the first team so far this season.

We'll focus though on his Northern Ireland career for now.

I'd say so far it's been just okay. For a player with his talent, it should be a whole better than just okay.

When Evans pulled out due to illness for last month's game with Russia, there were raised eyebrows and lots of tutting from fans questioning the late withdrawal, even though it seemed genuine.

It illustrates the point that some supporters wonder if Jonny is as committed to the international side as, say, men like Stephen Craigan or Alan McDonald, who played in his position in the past.

There's also still that debate amongst the Green and White Army if he got himself booked on purpose at Windsor one night to miss a trip to Estonia.

I do feel that sometimes he gets frustrated playing for Northern Ireland especially when things have been going wrong and mistakes are being made, but when you are big player in what is essentially a small team you have to learn to live with that.

Against Russia the defence of Aaron Hughes, Gareth McAuley, Craig Cathcart and Daniel Lafferty excelled. Against Portugal tomorrow night due to injury and suspension only McAuley out of that back four is likely to play. Evans will be alongside him in the heart of defence.

Jonny be good? No, Jonny, with Ronaldo (pictured) all fired up and Portugal needing a win for their World Cup hopes, you'll have to be great again.

He is capable of delivering another outstanding display.

Here's hoping Figo and everyone else will once more be looking at Jonny in awe tomorrow night rather than you know who.

Belfast Telegraph

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