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Jonny Evans calls for next Northern Ireland manager to build on O'Neill blueprint

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Mutual respect: Michael O’Neill and Jonny Evans in training

Mutual respect: Michael O’Neill and Jonny Evans in training

Mutual respect: Michael O’Neill and Jonny Evans in training

Jonny Evans has labelled Michael O'Neill one of the finest managers in Northern Ireland history and called on his replacement to have the same vision and uphold the high standards now in place for the national team.

Under O'Neill, Evans became a Northern Ireland great, excelling in central defence, and is considered one of the nation's most influential 21st century players.

He was magnificent in the Euro 2016 finals, superb when the side just missed out on 2018 World Cup qualification and will be crucial in the Euro 2020 play-offs whenever they take place.

In a fascinating interview with Sunday Life Sport, the Leicester City hero credits O'Neill with helping to transform his game and says over the past eight years - when he has played for three clubs and a host of managers - the Stoke City boss has been the stabilising force in his career, inspiring a "love affair" with Northern Ireland that Evans wants to continue for some time to come.

"Michael has been a huge part of my international career. One thing I found during the last eight years, he was the one constant that I've had and has always been there for me," says the ex-Manchester United ace.

"At club level, managers have changed but Michael was always the stable manager who allowed me to progress in my club career and enjoy good times at international level.

"With the international scene, it has been a complete love affair especially over the last six years. The feelings you get representing your country are extremely special. There have been some really emotional moments and we want to create more of them.

"After the Euros in 2016, one of the best things was that we didn't slacken off in any way. We were unlucky and felt disappointed not to get to the World Cup and now we are in with a good chance of getting to the next Euros.

"Over the years, the team has built up self belief and Michael has put us in a position where players feel they are improving and enjoying it. I still feel like that at 32 years of age. Over the last couple of years, Michael has managed to transform my game in different ways.

"For the person who gets the Northern Ireland job, it will be a difficult challenge following Michael but, on the other side, he has left the team in a good place and raised expectations and standards.

"A lot of good things are in place and it will be up to the new manager to carry that on and have the same vision Michael had and maintain and uphold those standards.

"The new manager will get great support from the players and the fans just like Michael did. I would think he will want to do things his way, though Michael has set down a good blueprint."

Evans has been in contact with O'Neill since it was announced in midweek that he would leave Northern Ireland to focus full-time on Stoke.

Speaking from his Cheshire home, where he is enjoying family time in lockdown with wife Helen and their children, the defender adds: "There was speculation about Michael for a number of years and he was always very open and honest with us about it.

"He would talk to senior players like myself and Davo (Steven Davis) and one or two others and if we saw things in the paper we could ask him about it. It was good to have that sort of relationship with him.

"We knew a good club job was something he aspired to do. When the Stoke move came about, all of the lads were really happy for him though there was also the reality and the disappointment that we would be losing one of the best managers our country has ever had.

"To be honest, though, I think the happiness for Michael outweighed our own disappointment. He was great for us and Northern Ireland."

Belfast Telegraph