Manchester United ace Jonny Evans key to Northern Ireland success
Thoughtful, articulate and assured, Jonny Evans looked every inch Northern Ireland's star performer yesterday.
He hadn't conducted a question and answer session with the written press for quite some time. Hopefully he'll be back in the hotseat sooner rather than later because when Evans speaks he's worth listening to.
The subject of Manchester United was off limits given that he was on international duty. If only Uruguay's Luis Suarez had followed the same strategy during the summer he would have saved Liverpool a lot of bother!
Instead Evans concentrated on Northern Ireland, who face Luxembourg here in a World Cup qualifier tomorrow night.
He chatted positively about the future of the team and outlined a well reasoned argument about why fans should feel hopeful in the years ahead.
Having him around playing at his best will definitely help.
Bright and never afraid to answer one of your questions with one of his own, Evans has always been his own man.
You have to be to make it at United. He may not have played under David Moyes in a competitive match yet, but surely that is only a matter of time. At United the 25-year-old is one of a number of stars. When he joins up with Northern Ireland, he is the most famous player we have and fast becoming the most decorated having won another league title with the Red Devils last season.
Other players in the squad look up to him and having made his debut seven years ago at left back in the epic 3-2 victory over Spain at Windsor Park, he is now very much a senior professional.
The Northern Ireland vice-captain says, rather than ranting and raving at team-mates, he prefers to lead by example.
Evans said: “I think my role has changed with the more experience I have gained but it has not been a dramatic change for me. I wouldn't say I was the type to tell other players what to do. For instance against Portugal I didn't tell Lee Hodson at right back how to play his game.
“You lead by example and show the boys by your performances. That pays dividends more than lads getting on each other's backs at international level.
“I wouldn't say you don't have the same bond as you have at club level when you might say something to a team-mate and it is forgotten the next day but you have to show respect at this level.”
Not since Aaron Hughes and Stephen Craigan played together so superbly has there been a regular centre back pairing. Maybe that could change with the Evans and Gareth McAuley (pictured) partnership showing signs of promise in this campaign.
On Friday night they were in control of the Portuguese attack until the red cards for Chris Brunt and Kyle Lafferty allowed Cristiano Ronaldo to take over and score a treble in his side's 4-2 win.
“Gareth didn't go into the full-time game until he was 24 so he is still like a young pup and I believe he has plenty of miles in the tank yet. He looks after himself and is a great professional and I really enjoy playing alongside him,” said Evans.
“When the ball is in the air I say, ‘Go on G, go and win it' and I sweep in behind him. It works well.”
Hopefully Evans and McAuley won't be too busy against little Luxembourg, who drew 1-1 at Windsor Park earlier in the campaign.
“This match won't be as big in terms of publicity as the one with Portugal but it's hugely important to us because we haven't done well enough against these types of teams,” said Evans in reference to that draw and one with Azerbaijan.
“In games like this we get a lot more of the ball and the onus is on us to produce.
“If we don't produce early on people tend to get worried so what we must do is apply ourselves like we did against Portugal and Russia.”
As for his verdict on the campaign to date: “The positives are the stage where we are at now and the progress that we have made. It took a while for Michael O'Neill to get his first win as manager and us as players felt for him.
“There were opportunities for us before the win over Russia when you think of the chances we created in the draw with Azerbaijan and against Luxembourg at home we were seconds from a win.
“Windsor Park was rocking against Portugal and we want to create that buzz all the time.”