Northern Ireland v Norway: Jonny Evans hungry for centre stage
Jonny Evans was in fine form as he held court for the press in the Cameron Suite at the Culloden hotel yesterday.
No surprise there, the 24-year-old has been in fine form for Manchester United most of the season.
While Old Trafford legends Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes have rightly been earning the plaudits lately, Evans has also been a key player in United's relentless pursuit of Premier League leaders Manchester City.
And this after suffering serious criticism from fans and pundits alike after being sent off in that embarrassing 6-1 defeat for the Red Devils earlier this season against their nearest, but not so dearest, rivals.
He's shown character, combined with his ability, to bounce back.
Again there should be no shock in that because from the very first moment Evans arrived on the big stage in 2006, making his debut in a position alien to him in a famous Northern Ireland victory over Spain at Windsor Park, you could tell there was something special about him.
He looked like a player destined to have a career of note. He is, having already won titles and cups with United. Right now it's hard to imagine Sir Alex Ferguson's side without him.
His levels of consistency at club level have become extremely high.
If we're being honest, I'm not sure you could say that about him on the international arena, which is a pity because we really should be building the Northern Ireland team around players like Jonny.
Maybe it will happen under new manager Michael O'Neill.
In the past Evans has often played at left-back, where he did so well against the Spanish six years ago, or at right-back. Only now and again has he been in the heart of defence, which he favours.
He says: “Since I made my international debut I've played full-back and probably just one or two games at centre-back which is obviously my strongest position. That's where I would like to play and hopefully Northern Ireland will get the best out of me there.”
Point made. Expect Evans to be centre-back against Norway at Windsor Park tomorrow.
In his previous match in Belfast last September — a 1-0 defeat to Serbia in the Euro 2012 qualifiers — Evans picked up a needless booking ruling him out of the shocking 4-1 defeat in Estonia, that effectively accounted for Nigel Worthington.
On that yellow card, Evans would only say: “People get booked and miss games. I've got to look forward now to the next campaign and Wednesday night when we'll aim to put on a good performance.”
Like the rest of his international pals, Evans has been impressed by O'Neill. “He has a good presence about him. All the lads are buzzing. It looks like we'll have a good shape about us on Wednesday.”
What should also show is Evans, by his own admission, in the best form of his career. He says: “I'm now used to being at United and the expectation and responsibilities that goes with it. I'm starting to mature into someone who realises what it takes to be a United player. I don't mean just on the pitch with your performances, but the all-round package and how you conduct yourself. I suppose that's what sets United players apart from others.”
Giggs and Scholes are two in that mould. At 38 and 37 they remain majestic, influential footballers, illustrated by their goals in Sunday's 2-1 victory at Norwich.
Evans has his own intriguing insight into his one time yoga partner Giggs, who remarkably played his 900th game for United at the weekend, and Scholes who recently came out of retirement.
“They have freakish bodies and a real appetite for football,” says the defender. “Paul Scholes is the first on the training pitch. Him coming back has been unbelievable for us. He controls games from midfield. I think when he was retired he was missing the day to day training, getting out of the house and kicking a ball about. He loves that. I always think Paul Scholes goes home and kicks a ball about. I imagine him having this big field blasting balls around it.
“Giggs is just outstanding. I've just got to over 100 games for United. I definitely won't get anywhere near his 900. People say he has lost his pace, but it was so frightening in the first place that he's probably now just at the same level of speed as the rest of us are.
“Both he and Scholes are so experienced, their brains are ahead of everyone else and their technique is that good it allows then to play on. They are inspirational.”