Jonny Evans: How ‘dial the numbers’ in training put NI defender on track for 100 caps


Evans earned his 99th cap for Northern Ireland in their last 2-1 win over Kosovo on Saturday

Jonny Evans’ debut in Northern Ireland was one of the most memorable in the country’s history. However, a few days earlier, the manager had never heard of him.

Lawrie Sanchez’s side had lost 3-0 at home to Iceland on Saturday when, on the Monday morning of September 4, 2006, he needed some players from the under-21 squad “to catch up” for a practice match.

Spain, world champions and two-time European champions, arrived in town on Wednesday and a special evening was preparing at Windsor Park.

Evans, an 18-year-old Manchester United centre-half who has yet to make his first first-team appearance, was one of those asked to step in – and play in an unfamiliar position .

“I hadn’t even met Jonny at the time until Monday and it was the first time I had seen him play,” explained Sanchez, who was Northern Ireland manager from 2004 to 2007.

“Jonny was a centre-half but we didn’t have a left-back and he could play with both feet. During the 11 v 11 game I stood with my coaches thinking ‘he’s not bad, you know”.

“I think it was Jon Goodman (Sanchez’s fitness trainer) who suggested we keep him with us, so I did. We were even more impressed with him in training on Tuesday. and so we made the decision to play him against Spain. I felt “He’s comfortable with the ball, he’s a big boy and he’s got a lot on him, so let’s put it in “The players liked him and it seemed normal.”

“Torres, Raul and Villa all tried their luck”

Sanchez on Evans’ early days – ‘Raul, Torres and Villa all stood out for him’

Tuesday night in Athens against Greece, Evans, now 34 and captain of Leicester City, is set to earn his 100th international cap in Northern Ireland’s final Nations League game.

A remarkable step in an international career that could hardly have started under far more disheartening circumstances.

Only 18 years old. Against the world and elected double European champion. Play out of position. Having never played for his club. The team under pressure. And a manager he had just met.

How did he cope? Well, Sanchez’s enduring memory of the game may provide the perfect snapshot.

“What I remember the most is that the first three Spaniards, Fernando Torres, Raul and David Villa, each faced Jonny,” he recalled.

“Torres started on the right and after a while he traded with David Villa, who came and tried. After a while Villa traded with Raul. It was like ‘well, you try with him “.

“All three knew this young lad was playing his first game and probably thought they could get something out of him. But they didn’t. Jonny looked like he had played 100 games for us on the left – return.”

A strong no from Sir Alex and the symmetry of the Greek stadium

Lawrie Sanchez
Sanchez picked up wins against England and Spain during his tenure as Northern Ireland boss

Evans quickly became a regular with Sanchez before the former Wimbledon midfielder could resist the Premier League call, leaving to take over at Fulham in 2007.

He assembled a collection of Northern Ireland players at Craven Cottage but failed to sign the Greenisland Academy graduate.

“I was speaking to Sir Alex Ferguson and inquired about buying Jonny as he was not in United’s first team but was soon told they had already turned down £15m for him.

“I asked about a loan and again he said no, and soon after he was in the United squad. Sir Alex was adamant he was one for the future, so he didn’t have it.”

The pride with which Sanchez has watched Evans’ career progress will skyrocket even more if Evans wins his 100th cap against the Greeks.

“I realized recently that the match was being played at the Georgios Kamaras stadium, where I managed Apollon Smyrnis [for five months from November 2013]. It’s kind of ironic that Jonny hits that milestone there.”

Roommate Healy already knew

David Healy and Jonny Evans
Healy and Evans both started their careers at Manchester United

While Sanchez may not have known much about the talented young United, his top scorer David Healy, who himself came through the youth ranks at Old Trafford, most certainly did.

Indeed, it was probably the United connection that led to the manager making striker Evans the first international roommate – a move that helped establish a strong friendship that lasts to this day.

“I remember when I was around 18, I spoke to Eddie Coulter, the scout who took Jonny and me to United, and he was delighted with this young player he had,” Healy said.

“I took Eddie at his word when he said he’s never seen a player like Jonny – ‘you wanna see that boy’ is what he said. Then when you actually see him training, playing and being in and around the group, you could tell within 24 hours we had a real player on our hands.

“Jonny the person and the player is just amazing. I’ve gotten to know him over the years and he’s been a fantastic servant for Northern Ireland. He’s so respectful, he’s humble and he comes from a good family.”

‘A lousy golfer’ who ruined Ronaldo’s 100th cap

Christian
Northern Ireland robbed Cristiano Ronaldo of victory on his 100th cap

While jokingly describing his good friend’s golf as “rubbish”, there was a gleam in Healy’s eye when he spoke of Evans’ qualities as a player.

“His commitment first and foremost, his level of fitness – I know he’s missed a few games with minor injuries, but he makes himself available most of the time.

“Jonny comes from that background where playing for Northern Ireland means a lot and if every player approached it that way there would probably be a lot more players winning 100 caps.

“It’s his composure, his understanding and the defensive cover he provides. He’s very comfortable on both sides. It could have been a blow when he had to leave Man United, but he thrived at West Brom and Leicester. He always gets disappointed and angry when other people around him don’t do their job, that’s how he is.”

While Evans has consistently delivered great performances for his country over his 99 caps, there are two displays that stand out for Healy – and one that was not in a certain Cristiano Ronaldo’s script.

“We drew 1-1 on Ronaldo’s 100th cap on a wet night in Portugal. Everyone at the time was talking about Pepe and Bruno Alves, but Jonny was amazing that night. I told him afterwards ‘people were talking about Alves moving for £25m, and if that’s the case, you’re worth £80m’.

“The other performance was against Italy recently when we drew 0-0 and the Italian coaching staff [including Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli] points out that Jonny could have been Italian. He’s first class.”

In 2006, Evans might well have been Italian for all Lawrie Sanchez knew. But he, and all supporters in Northern Ireland, soon found out all about him.

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