Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland set-up has helped our lads flourish at clubs, says Evans

 

By Paul Ferguson

Defensive rock Jonny Evans has hailed Northern Ireland's talented mishmash for their incredible resurgence in recent years under boss Michael O'Neill - which could culminate with an appearance in next year's World Cup finals in Russia if they are able to navigate the play-offs.

During the last two qualifying campaigns, Northern Ireland have accumulated a remarkable 40 points, compared to the meagre total of 16 when they were involved in matches to reach Euro 2012 with Nigel Worthington in charge and World Cup 2014 when an inexperienced Michael O'Neill struggled to turn around the fortunes of the national team.

Evans is a Premier League star with West Brom and won three championships during his time at Manchester United, but O'Neill's teams are a real mixture and on Sunday night in Oslo he had four Premier League players, five from the Championship and two from League One in his starting XI.

While Evans and captain Steven Davis are viewed as the class acts of the team, O'Neill has made it clear he has doesn't have any superstars in his squad.

"We have to give ourselves a lot of credit, and I think a lot of other people have to give us a lot of credit," says 29 year-old Evans.

"It's an amazing achievement when you see where all of the lads are playing - some are playing League One, some are Championship, some Premier League.

"Without a doubt, you can see the lads are improving. Look at Conor (McLaughlin), for example: he's stepped up to the Championship now and he's excelling for Millwall.

"I think Josh (Magennis), whether or not Charlton are able to push on, I'm sure Championship clubs will be looking at him. I think the international stage gives the lads a real platform."

Evans has developed a strong bond with his international manager, has a great deal of respect for him and, in turn, the West Brom captain's opinions are heavily sought after between important qualifiers by O'Neill.

Newtownabbey lad Evans loved the fact that O'Neill, once he had evaluated Group C in the World Cup qualifiers, told the players their target was to win the mini league involving the Czech Republic, Norway and Azerbaijan.

He confesses: "Michael's a realist; there's not many people can admit that and just say 'Right, Germany are going to win the group'. That's a big statement to make. I actually can remember the picture he put on the screen with Germany and said, 'Right, cut them off at the top - we're going to win this sort of mini-league below them.'

"We've managed to do that, and it's satisfying whenever you're able to hit those targets."

Evans and his Northern Ireland team-mates are just 180 minutes away from the World Cup finals and, obviously with the prize so great, there will be a great intensity on the players when they come to play the games over the international week of November 9-14.

"There'll be some big teams in the draw. There's no point trying to work out who we'll get. But one thing is for sure - we'll be fully up for it and we're going to really enjoy the games."

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