Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland v Latvia: We'd love Michael O'Neill to stay, he's inspired us to success says West Brom defender Jonny Evans

By Steven Beacom

Jonny Evans makes no bones about it. He wants Michael O'Neill to stay as manager of Northern Ireland well beyond the Euro 2016 finals, pointing out how sad the players would be if he departed.

The West Brom defender knows all too well, though, that after France next summer, O'Neill could be one of the most wanted men in football with owners and chairmen trying to tempt him away from his international role.

By then O'Neill should be tied down on a long term deal with the IFA, but that won't stop interested clubs making offers knowing there will be get-out clauses written into the new contract.

Evans has played under some of the biggest names in the game including Sir Alex Ferguson, who many see as the daddy of them all, David Moyes and Louis van Gaal at Manchester United. Roy Keane was his boss at Sunderland and now the 27-year-old is becoming used to life with Tony Pulis at the Hawthorns.

At international level from making his debut at left-back in the famous 3-2 victory over Spain in Belfast in 2006, his bosses have been Lawrie Sanchez, Nigel Worthington and O'Neill.

Out of that trio it's clear the former Shamrock Rovers manager has had the biggest impact on Evans.

"I think he's really, really good. I could sit down and talk football for hours with him. Since he's come in I've been able to do that and I've always liked what he's had to say," said the centre-back, likely to start in tomorrow's friendly against Latvia at Windsor Park.

"He's a thinker of the game and looks at things from different angles. I like the way he wants his teams to play.

"He made us successful by the way he wants to play, taking the game to the opposition. We've scored goals, we've kept clean sheets. He gets everyone playing for him and his tactical understanding is fantastic.

"I think he could manage in the Premier League. What I like about him is he won't just settle for what's there, he'll try to improve.

"He's only with us for 10 days at a time and has improved us as a team and as individuals.

"If he got hold of a team on a regular basis he would no doubt improve them.

"His style of coaching is based around thinking about the game, not just running the legs off the lads. He did a good job with Shamrock Rovers when he had the players for a longer period of time.

"It would be sad for us as players if it got to a situation where he wasn't here though.

"We'd all love to see him stay on. We all know how much work he does.

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"We only get to see him 10 days at a time but the stuff he does for us is fantastic, the extra stuff in the background is excellent. He's also improved facilities for us and when we come over everything is prepared."

Come France next year, when Northern Ireland play in a major tournament for the first time in three decades, you can bet your life O'Neill will have the players all clued up about the opposition whoever that turns out to be.

Evans would relish a shot at one of the bigger European nations in the finals.

"We've always seemed to do well against the big countries. On such a big stage maybe it would be nice to get one of the big boys and see how we do. It would make for a great occasion," he said.

The WBA player was involved in four Euro 2016 qualifiers with injury ruling him out of the other six when Aaron Hughes and Craig Cathcart partnered Gareth McAuley in defence showing the strength in that department.

"It's always been the case since I came in as a 19-year-old," says Evans.

"It maybe took me three years before I was playing centre-back because there were so many of them. It's a strong position for us.

"That's something Michael has to juggle because Craig is playing regular Premier League football and having a really great season for Watford, then there's myself, Gareth and Aaron.

"One thing that has happened over the last two years or so is competition all over the pitch."

In the previous match at Windsor Park last month, when Northern Ireland qualified beating Greece 3-1, Evans was a spectator.

His disappointment at not being able to play in the most talked about international here for years was overwhelmed by feelings of joy at the final whistle.

"It was frustrating from a personal level but putting personal feelings aside it was such a big night for the country, for the team and for the manager. I was just so excited for the game, the whole of Northern Ireland was," he recalled.

"I've never had that sort of feeling going into a game, with that much excitement. I felt the night would go well, it was made for us.

"I was watching the Greece game from the sidelines trying to analyse it from a football perspective and I saw how much work the lads do.

"Steven Davis scored two goals and worked his socks off. My brother Corry and Ollie Norwood in midfield also did a fantastic job stifling Greece. It was great to see.

"The whole campaign has been special. Before the Finland game at home Michael played a video replaying all our goals and achievements of the past in the hotel and there was a lot of emotion in the room.

"It was quite a strange feeling and the first time I'd felt so emotional going into a game.

"I kept having to tell myself to calm down.

"Michael's created that environment within the squad and it's very important. Everyone's in it together and it's amazing to be part of it."

International: Windsor Park, Fri 7.45pm (BBC2)

Northern Ireland v Latvia

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