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Sammy McIlroy: Jonny Evans can handle it on centre stage

Losing a player who has appeared 79 times for his country, been captain for nine years and never played below the English Premier League is a hammer blow to Northern Ireland.

But there is something that will soften the effect of Aaron Hughes’ international retirement, according to former Northern Ireland manager Sammy McIlroy.

After making his debut for Manchester Untied as a teenager, McIlroy became a fans’ favourite at Old Trafford and he is still revered by the older generation of supporters, who fondly remember his best days in the red shirt.

He believes that Hughes’ decision means a current United player will now get the chance to prove just how valuable he is to the international team as a natural replacement for the Fulham defender.

“Jonny Evans is the ideal man to go and make the centre-half position his own,” said McIlroy, who still watches United on a regular basis and is a regular pundit on the club’s television channel, MUTV.

“He’s been playing out of position at left-back for Northern Ireland, everyone knows that, although he’s played very well there and done a great job for the team.

“He’s a centre-half though and now there is an ideal opportunity for him to be Northern Ireland’s main centre-half for the next 10 years.

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“He has the experience of playing there in the Premier League for Manchester United against some top players in the Premier League as well as in Europe and he’s gained a lot of experience at a young age.

“He’s only 23-years-old, but he knows the international scene as well and the one thing working in Northern Ireland’s favour now that Aaron Hughes is retiring is that Jonny Evans is there and is ready to take his place.”

Long term it is likely that two men who grew up in the Newtownabbey area before being schooled at United will become Northern Ireland’s central defensive duo, with Evans to be joined by Blackpool’s Craig Cathcart, who left Old Trafford 16 months ago after failing to make a first-team breakthrough.

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