Belfast Telegraph

Evans is determined to take on the World for O'Neill

By Steven Beacom

Jonny Evans has challenged his Northern Ireland team-mates to qualify for the 2018 World Cup following their Euro 2016 adventure.

The West Bromwich Albion defender, who had a super tournament in France, is hoping that the confidence gained from playing in the Euros can help Northern Ireland progress and adds that making it to Russia in two years would be the ideal way to pay back Michael O'Neill for his inspirational leadership if the manager is still in charge of the country.

Former Manchester United star Evans was full of praise for how O'Neill guided Northern Ireland to the Euro finals and the work he put in during their stay in the competition which extended beyond the group stages.

Evans excelled in all four games in France, including the last 16 defeat to Wales at the weekend in Paris.

Like the rest of his team-mates he received huge cheers when introduced to a large crowd last night at the Belsonic Fanzone site in Belfast's Titanic Quarter as part of an official homecoming party for the latest national heroes.

"What we have achieved will give us belief going forward," he said. "We have another big campaign coming up now with the World Cup and our next aim has to be to qualify for that.

"It will be difficult, of course, but we know what it takes to qualify for tournaments now and hopefully that will stand us in good stead."

Northern Ireland's World Cup qualifiers begin on September 4 away to the Czech Republic. They will also play World champions Germany, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino with the winners of the group going to Russia and the runners-up in a two-legged play-off.

Evans, who made history with his younger sibling Corry by becoming the first Northern Ireland brothers to play in the finals of a major tournament, would love O'Neill (right) to stay in international management, though is aware he is sure to generate interest from clubs in England and beyond.

"Hopefully Michael will still be in the job and he won't be poached by anyone," said the 28-year-old.

"I am sure a lot of clubs will be looking at him because he has done such a fantastic job.

"He did brilliantly during qualification and in France of course we had the football matches which he prepared so much for, but the work that he has done behind the scenes has also been incredible.

"He prepares everything to the last detail from the hotel to the food we eat. He is so, so thorough and deserves a lot of credit.

"The role of manager is crucial. The manager is the most important part of the team and he has put us in a great position and hopefully we can repay him by qualifying again."

Evans admits he found the loss to Wales tough to take, especially after Northern Ireland had looked the more likely to score the crucial opening goal for long periods of the game.

"We were so disappointed. Sometimes you get a feeling in a game that the first team to score will win and it was always going to be a 1-0 match," he said. "After they went ahead we tried to put them under pressure but I thought they defended well.

"We can be proud of the way we played. We knew what type of game it was going to be. Both teams played the same formation. We matched them up because we knew they were very good on the counter attack and we didn't want to give them any space to do that.

"It probably made for a scrappy game. There wasn't much between the teams in terms of personnel and in the tactical side of the game and I think it was a case of who was going to get that first goal."

Evans was key to keeping Welsh superstar Gareth Bale quiet for long periods, though when the Real Madrid player found space in the 75th minute it was his dangerous cross that led to Gareth McAuley's own goal.

"When we matched them up we let the wing backs deal with their wing backs and the rest of us could be aggressive," said the defender, who looked equally comfortable playing as part of a three-man defence or a back four.

"Playing with three centre backs gives one player the licence to push in from behind. The plan for me was to push in on Bale in the first-half and to try and cut his chances down.

"I enjoyed that challenge. Michael had talked to me about it and that was the plan. He is their best player and we wanted to try and stop him getting on the ball and we did that for the majority of the match.

"He still had his moments of brilliance and put a great ball in for their goal which was almost impossible to defend against."

While keen to talk about the team effort in France, when pressed on his top class individual performances, the good news for Northern Ireland supporters is that Evans feels he can improve in years to come.

"I think for all of us this has been the biggest stage of our careers and we were all up for it and prepared really well," he stated.

"On a personal level I had a really good season for West Brom and I feel I have been playing probably the best football in my career to date.

"I am still getting better and there is a lot more to come from me. I am enjoying my football and that makes a big difference."

Belfast Telegraph