Belfast Telegraph

Why I'll never forget Paul Smyth going past me at Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 camp, explains Jonny Evans

 

By Paul Ferguson

At the Euro 2016 finals in France, young part-timer Paul Smyth did something in a matter of seconds that footballing superstars Robert Lewandowski, Andriy Yarmolenko and Gareth Bale failed to achieve in 270 minutes of international football against Northern Ireland's Jonny Evans.

Evans was one of the stars of the tournament with his impeccable defending leaving his star-studded opponents frustrated and deflated as Northern Ireland created history by reaching the knock-out stages of the finals.

But a raw 18-year-old, just a slight figure of a lad from west Belfast who was playing Irish League football with Linfield, left Evans flat footed and beaten during a training ground session.

Smyth, along with Glenavon's Joel Cooper, was invited by manager Michael O'Neill to France to make up the numbers during squad training sessions.

However, rather than just blend into the background, Smyth left a lasting impression on the former Manchester United ace, who has never forgotten his name.

Evans recalled: "I remember Paul Smyth coming to train with us at the Euros. He wasn't in the squad, just there to train with us, and I thought his training was outstanding.

"I'd just gone into the left-back spot and we were warming up to play against Ukraine and we were doing a bit of team shape. I was playing left-back that night against Ukraine.

"Paul was on the right wing and I hadn't really seen much of him at that point. He had the ball, I went to close him down, he's put the ball past me down the line and he has just taken off. He caught me by surprise and I was like, 'Who is this kid?'

"I'll never forget that moment - I thought, 'This boy has something'.

"He has that pace off the mark because he is so light. He was jinking around, but after that I made sure it never happened again," smiled Evans.

Two years on from that moment in Saint-Georges-de-Reneins, Smyth has just finished his first season of professional football with QPR, marked his senior international debut in March with a stunning goal against South Korea and is on this tour of Central America with Evans, who will captain Northern Ireland against Panama in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Evans continued: "Paul's gone over to QPR and people were probably thinking, 'Is it a good move, is it not?'

"They are a Championship team, he's coming from the Irish League and the big question is, can he adapt? Is he ready? It maybe took him a couple of months to adapt but fair play to him, he's absolutely flying. I always check the QPR team every week to see if he is starting or on the bench.

"It's great that he has had an impact there, he's a great kid, brilliant attitude and I'm so pleased for him. Hopefully he can have a big influence on us for years to come."

Smyth is just one of six youngsters alongside keepers Bailey Peacock-Farrell and Conor Hazard, plus exciting midfielders Gavin Whyte, Jordan Thompson and Everton forward Shayne Lavery in Michael O'Neill's squad.

After the disappointment of falling at the final hurdle for Russia in the World Cup play-offs last November, boss O'Neill has already started his preparations for an assault on the Euro 2020 qualifiers which start next March, and Evans insists the injection of youth can only add fresh impetus to the squad.

Evans said: "Losing the World Cup play-off was in November so it now feels like a distant memory. The new lads coming in have been great for the squad.

"Paul Smyth coming in and scoring the winner last time out against Korea, I couldn't stop thinking about it for weeks.

"That's what sometimes happens when young lads come in. People underestimate the effect young players have on the squad, especially on senior players. It gives you a lift and they challenge senior players."

Evans is set for a big summer as he finalises a cut-price move away from West Brom to a new Premier League team after the Baggies suffered relegation.

Leicester City are extremely interested in buying the 30-year-old for £3m - his release clause from West Brom following their drop - but Arsenal, under new boss Unai Emery, may finally snap him up after having bids in the last two transfer windows rejected.

But Evans insists his focus is on helping a depleted Northern Ireland side upstage Panama on the hosts' big home send-off before the World Cup.

Evans added: "We don't really know too much about Panama - we've watched some video on them so we know it's a completely different style.

"They are football crazy over here. All the TV channels are just football, football. I've been watching a few games and there is a different style, a different pace to things but it will be a tough game for us.

"There's a big excitement about their national team. It wasn't until we actually got here that we fully understood how passionate they are about their football. There are World Cup banners all over the place - in the hotels and stadiums.

"It'll be nice to be part of the occasion, it's their last home game before the World Cup, there will be a great atmosphere. Hopefully we can put in a good performance."

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Our coverage of Northern Ireland's tour to play Panama and Costa Rica is brought to you in conjunction with BetMcLean.

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