Northern Ireland are going places under Michael O'Neill, says Jonny Evans
Manchester United star Jonny Evans has insisted that Northern Ireland are moving forward under the management of Michael O'Neill and believes a strong finish to this World Cup campaign could set the side up for a real crack at qualifying for the Euro 2016 finals.
While some may scoff at such a suggestion given that Northern Ireland have only amassed six points from their seven Group F games and lie fourth in the table, clearly Evans, who is never bombastic, has seen enough in the O'Neill era to confidently speak about the future.
The United hero, who will operate in central defence in the World Cup qualifier against Luxembourg tomorrow, feels with the European Championships being expanded by Uefa that Northern Ireland have a genuine chance to join the party.
The numbers back him up. For the World Cup in Brazil next year only 13 European teams can qualify yet for the Euro 2016 in France, 23 sides will join the hosts giving nations like Northern Ireland more hope.
“With extra teams being able to qualify for the Euros in the next campaign that gives everyone a really big incentive,” said Evans.
“What we need to do is finish our last three matches in this campaign, starting with Luxembourg, really strongly and get as many points on board as possible because that might impact on the seedings and draw for the 2016 European Championships.
“I do believe we are in a good place now mentally and I do feel there is real hope for the future.”
To illustrate his point Evans spoke about the two previous World Cup qualifiers, the 1-0 home win over Russia which he watched from the stands after pulling out due to illness and the 4-2 defeat against Portugal on Friday night when he and the rest of the team were beating the visitors until Chris Brunt and Kyle Lafferty got themselves sent off.
Evans said: "In the Portugal match I felt we were really comfortable. Everyone is of the mindset that the red cards for our players changed the game, but when it was 11 v 11 I thought we were the better side and then when they had a man sent off we were in control.
"The 4-2 scoreline doesn't tell the story because we had put ourselves in a winning position and had played well.
"If you also look at the Russian game the team really applied themselves. We passed it around when we had to and played behind when we had to, so you can see there is a really good understanding growing among the players.
"The big change I have noticed from the past is that we don't have players playing out of position now. When I came in I played left back for a number of years. I was doing a job for the team but never felt comfortable there.
"Now we have players playing for us in the same position as they play for their club like Niall McGinn on the right wing and Shane Ferguson on the left and Steve Davis and Oliver Norwood in midfield. That really helps.
"Also there is greater competition at left back and right back and in the centre of defence.
"Further forward in the last few years we just thought we had Kyle Lafferty up front and now we have Martin Paterson and Jamie Ward staking a claim for a place.
"If we can continue in that fashion and get more good young players in, we can keep moving forward."
Meanwhile, despite all the injuries and the suspensions of Kyle Lafferty and Chris Brunt for tomorrow’s match against Luxembourg, only Rangers midfielder Dean Shiels has been called into the squad. It was Shiels of course who scored the goal for Northern Ireland in their 1-1 draw with Luxembourg earlier in the campaign.
Shiels netted after some impressive approach play from United ace Evans and it looked as though Northern Ireland would go on to record a comfortable victory until Luxembourg equalised with a deflected shot late in the game.
Belfast Telegraph Digital