Belfast Telegraph

Jonny Evans backs Michael O'Neill to get it right for Northern Ireland

By Stuart McKinley

Jonny Evans is backing Michael O’Neill to lead Northern Ireland towards a bright future, despite Wednesday night’s 3-0 defeat to Norway.

O’Neill’s debut was ruined by two late goals, but after a performance that brought a number of positives — not least encouraging displays from Ryan McGivern, Shane Ferguson and Dean Shiels — along with the impact new boss O’Neill made on his players off the pitch, Evans (left) is looking forward with optimism.

The Manchester United defender, who is attempting to become the first Northern Ireland man to win three league titles in England, has made no secret of the fact that he believes playing for his country at a major finals would be a bigger achievement than anything he accomplishes at Old Trafford.

And the 24-year-old wants to prove that to himself by helping O’Neill take the team to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup.

“It’s going to take time, that’s the joy of having friendly matches, so that both ourselves and the manger can learn things and we will all have learned a lot,” said Evans.

“We’ll take that into the next friendly against Holland in June and then the qualifiers when they start in September.

“By that time we’ll have worked together more and we’ll have got used to how the manager wants us to play and be more familiar with the system.

“We know the qualifying group is tough, but we’ll be having a good go at trying to get through.”

And while O’Neill faces the prospect of going to Amsterdam without a number of his experienced players, Evans has committed himself to taking on the Dutch.

Evans’ desire to be in the team to face Holland flies in the face of those who questioned his commitment to the Northern Ireland cause after what many considered to be a needless booking in the 1-0 defeat to Serbia last September ruled him out of the trip to Estonia a few days later.

And it is also good news for O’Neill that he’s going to be on the plane to Amsterdam as the last thing he needs is to have to fill the squad with inexperienced under-21 players and Irish League part-timers who are unlikely to win any further caps — or at least play in a competitive international.

The ideal scenario for O’Neill now is that Hughes makes himself available for the game on June 2 as well, so that he and Evans can continue to develop a partnership which will serve Northern Ireland throughout the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign.

When Hughes announced his international retirement in the autumn it was expected that would herald Evans being handed a regular place in the heart of the Northern Ireland defence, having played the vast majority of his international football in the unfamiliar position of left-back.

With the former skipper deciding to return after discussions with O’Neill Evans is relishing forging a link-up with Hughes.

“He’s (O’Neill) obviously told the press that he sees me as a centre-back, but in the past I’ve played at full-back for my country and it wouldn’t be a problem if I was asked to play there again,” said Evans.

“It’s great that Aaron has come back. He’s a great guy and it’s great for us that he’s here. He’s been a great servant for Northern Ireland and has a wealth of experience.

“I know he’s 32 but he’s still a real athlete. He’s got bundles of experience, although he’s not the biggest for a centre-back, but he can jump and he probably prides himself on his organisational skills.

“I’ve learnt from Aaron all the way through my international career, not just in this game, but in the past when I’ve played with him, even when I’ve been at full-back I’ve picked things up from him.”

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