Belfast Telegraph

Jonny Evans should not be an outcast at Manchester United - Michael O'Neill

Defender has been a target for Everton and West Brom

By Steven Beacom

Jonny Evans should be playing with one of the big guns in the Premier League, according to Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill.

When naming Evans in his squad yesterday for next month's Euro 2016 qualifiers against the Faroe Islands and Hungary, O'Neill revealed his surprise that the 27-year-old has become surplus to requirements at Manchester United, declaring the defender has the ability to play for any of the TOP SIX clubs in England.

That would mean United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal or Spurs and while the two north London clubs previously showed an interest in Evans, right now his options appear to be lower down the scale.

West Brom are keen to land the player in an £8million deal while Everton may make a move depending on whether their young English defender John Stones, who has handed in a transfer request, joins Chelsea. United themselves are keeping a close eye on the Stones situation, which could lead to a swap deal with Evans plus cash.

No matter where Evans ends up, he will be a key figure for O'Neill in the remainder of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, including the Group F September showdowns, despite not having played yet this season.

The Northern Ireland boss is hoping that any deal for Evans, or others such as Kyle Lafferty, will be concluded before the Northern Ireland squad meet up on Monday.

While feeling Evans could still deliver for United, O'Neill suggests that injuries and a six-match suspension at the end of last season for spitting at Newcastle striker Papiss Cisse - Evans will forever maintain it was not a deliberate act - have hindered the player's chances of becoming a regular under Louis van Gaal.

"I am a bit surprised at how things have worked out for Jonny at United because when I have seen him play under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal he has done well," said O'Neill (pictured).

"Sometimes this situation happens when a new manager comes in because he is looking to bring in his own players.

"In my view Jonny has been unfortunate with injuries and the suspension last season didn't help him. I was at Newcastle that night and I thought he played really well and had the opportunity to get a run in the team. It didn't happen because of a six-match suspension which I think was unlucky.

"For me Jonny Evans is an excellent player who could play in a top six team in the Premier League and do a good job for them."

Asked which club he would prefer Evans to join, given a move to WBA could push international team-mate Gareth McAuley out of the first XI at the Hawthorns, O'Neill said: "That would not be an ideal situation going to West Brom and possibly taking the place of another Northern Ireland player though they could also end up playing together.

"Jonny has known he would be in this type of situation since the end of last season and it hasn't changed since he went back to United in pre-season.

"He has spent most of his career at Manchester United and at his age, 27, this is a very important move for him. Having spoken to him I don't think it is something he will rush into. He won't be forced into anything. He is not that type of individual. He will make the decision that is right for him.

"He has a year left on his contract and he would be very attractive to a lot of clubs in a Bosman deal.

"The main thing for me is that my players are playing on a regular basis and are happy."

Given the importance of the matches with the Faroes and Hungary, O'Neill will closely assess his players who have rarely featured for their clubs or not at all, like Evans, since June 13 when Northern Ireland drew 0-0 against Romania at Windsor Park.

O'Neill said: "It is a concern because it is not just the lack of game time but also the requirement to play two games in three days and I believe they will be two tough, physically demanding games, but Jonny for instance in the past has come into big games having been out of the team for four or five weeks.

"At a big club like United you learn to do that. He is mentally equipped to cope and sometimes you find that the international break is good for players when their club situation isn't going how they would like.

"Physically, I feel Jonny will be fine. He has done a lot of work with the fitness people at Man United."

That fitness work may be supplemented by a training game today for United against Ajax. Evans is hoping to take part, possibly alongside youngster Paddy McNair, who is also in O'Neill's squad.

Veteran defender Aaron Hughes, now in Australia with Melbourne City, is also in.

"I spoke with Aaron last week and he's enjoying it. He says it is an excellent set-up," said O'Neill. "He's looking forward to joining up with us.

"In the summer Aaron was at a stage where he needed something different. In all honesty, it was Northern Ireland that was keeping him going last season because at Brighton it was a particularly frustrating time for him."

Belfast Telegraph