Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland are on target to become history-makers in Belarus: Jonny Evans


Jonny Evans
Jonny Evans

By Paul Ferguson

Michael O'Neill's comeback kings have a huge incentive heading into their crunch Euro 2020 qualifier against Belarus in Borisov tomorrow night.

After their dramatic 2-1 rescue act victory over Estonia on Saturday evening, Northern Ireland have the chance to become the first team in Irish FA history to win four qualifying matches in succession.

Not even the great sides including Gregg, McIlroy, Blanchflower, McParland, Best, Jennings and Armstrong could claim that feat.

Northern Ireland top Group C on nine points, but with the mighty Germans breathing down their necks in second place, they head into yet another 'must win' game determined to keep their 100% record intact.

"That would be perfect," admitted experienced defender Jonny Evans, who is now in Northern Ireland's top 10 for international appearances after earning his 79th cap in Tallinn.

"In the past, we might have slipped up in games like Estonia in Tallinn and gone under after the first goal, but we showed great character.

"It's a sign of how far we have come as a team."

Boss O'Neill had set his players the ambitious target of 12 points from their opening four games - and his players, with their confidence boosted by the manner of the win over Estonia, can make it mission accomplished against a Belarus side, who lost 2-0 to Germany on Saturday.

"That was the target and we're on track. It's all about our recovery now and making sure we're ready," added Leicester City centre back Evans.

Evans added: “We stay in Tallinn until Monday and then fly out to Belarus, hopefully to get the job done there.”

Evans is acutely aware tougher assignments lie in wait after Belarus as come September they will have Germany at home, the Netherlands in Rotterdam a month later and then Northern Ireland finish with a game at Windsor against the Dutch and the Germans in Frankfurt in November.

The 31-year-old said: “We talked before about the opening four games being almost like a mini-group with the aim of taking maximum points from them.

“We know how tough the remaining four games against two top sides will be, so we want to put ourselves in a good position.

“Germany and the Netherlands still have games to play and catch up on, so it’s important to get that head start.”

Until the 77th minute on Saturday night, it looked as though Euro qualifying hopes may have wilted in the evening Tallinn sunshine.

But O’Neill’s trio of substitutes stole the show from the starting XI with Conor Washington and Josh Magennis scoring the vital goals and Rangers new boy Jordan Jones impressing with his skill on the left wing.

“Conor has a point to prove,” said Evans. “He’s been promoted with Sheffield United and he’s found himself without a club now.

“But he’s looked sharp and had a bit of confidence too, you could tell that about him even in training. You always felt Michael would use him given how he was doing in training.

“Jordan is obviously going to Rangers. It’s a big move for him in the summer and he looked full of confidence.

“Josh was the same as well. That’s a couple of times he has done that now in this campaign and he keeps coming up with goals and he’s a huge threat for us.”

O’Neill opted to start with three former Irish League players — Gavin Whyte, Liam Boyce and Stuart Dallas — as an attacking triumvirate against Estonia, while Paddy McNair retained his place in midfield ahead of Jonny’s younger brother Corry and Hearts defender Michael Smith slotted in at right-back.

Evans admits that manager O’Neill now has the luxury of a big squad to choose from but it also means tough decisions with so many players of equal ability.

“I think Michael has talked about that and it’s probably the strongest our squad has ever been in terms of depth,” added Evans.

“Michael has tough decisions to make all the time and it’s probably the toughest period in his international career to pick a team but that’s a good sign for the squad.

“We have players coming in and I’m sure sometimes the fans don’t know what team he’s going to pick.

“The media are also probably always second guessing the team too.

“It shows that he puts his faith in players when they’re showing form at certain times.”

Belfast Telegraph


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