Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

Paul Ferguson: Jonny Evans well on his way to becoming one of our greats

Jonny Evans
Jonny Evans

By Paul Ferguson

Michael O'Neill often bemoaned the fact Northern Ireland didn't have a 'game changer' in the team.

A top class player who could, in the blink of an eye, change the complexion of a match.

In recent years, Northern Ireland were undone by the brilliance of Wales' Gareth Bale, Bosnia's Edin Dzeko and Austria's Marko Arnautovic.

It didn't matter the men in green may have looked the superior outfit in games against those nations, the most likely to score. Incredible skill, a turn of pace, a sublime finish or simply a moment of sheer magic rendered Northern Ireland's previous endeavours inconsequential.

They were 'game changers'.

With Northern Ireland, it is all about the collective effort with every player pitching in from all over the park, taking their games to a new level in order for Northern Ireland to stand a chance of being competitive in the international arena.

But are we underplaying the significance and contribution of Jonny Evans to Northern Ireland?

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A player who reads the game so well, his movement and timing have made his defending an art - stifling some of the most dangerous attacking players on the planet including Poland's Robert Lewandowski and Bale.

An immense talent with Manchester United as a youngster, who reignited his career at West Brom before excelling this season in the shirt of Leicester City.

The Newtownabbey lad is arguably playing the best football of his career, Foxes fans are relieved Man United took Harry Maguire rather than Evans, and even at 31, Manchester City once again have him on their radar going into the January window.

Under Brendan Rodgers at Leicester, he has laid the foundations with his cool, calm and dominant performances at the back, allowing the Foxes to be an exciting and dangerous force going forward.

But it's in the green shirt of his beloved country that Evans has looked so assured, accomplished and formidable during the last qualifying campaign.

Evans is one step ahead of the opposition with his presence and he expertly executes his tackles and danger-clearing headers.

Marshalling the defence alongside Craig Cathcart, Evans is vocal, talking his team-mates like young Jamal Lewis through the game.

The Netherlands star defenders Virgil van Dijk and Matthijs De Ligt, so threatening from set plays, were neutralised in both games while the Germans at Windsor Park needed a special strike from Marcel Halstenberg to find a way through the Northern Ireland rearguard.

Northern Ireland goalkeeper Bailey Peacock Farrell was well guarded throughout the campaign as Evans and co reduced the opposition to long range efforts and snap shots.

Indeed, prior to Tuesday night's 6-1 hammering from Germany in Frankfurt, a match Evans was unavailable for due to illness, Peacock-Farrell had only conceded seven goals in seven matches and three of those came in injury time from the Germans in Belfast and Dutch in Rotterdam.

The void of Evans not being on the Frankfurt pitch was startling.

Evans' distribution and his ability to show composure coming out of defence has enabled Northern Ireland to play their high press format with panache at times.

In Prague last month, Evans demonstrated his battling qualities, fighting hard to win the ball in the Czech Republic box to score Northern Ireland's second goal and then, in the final 15 minutes, he led by example as O'Neill's men had to dig deep to thwart an onslaught.

Modest Evans may not be the midfield maestro or flamboyant forward normally associated with a 'game changer'.

Yet Evans' prowess at the back continues to give Northern Ireland a platform to succeed on the international stage with the play-offs beckoning in March.

Belfast Telegraph

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