Manchester United may have secured a vital 3-2 away victory at league leaders Chelsea yesterday, ending a ten year hoodoo in the process, but it was in the same fixture four years ago that a rookie from Belfast would announce himself upon United’s first-team. United would be without their Serbian rock Nemanja Vidic for the 2008 away fixture to Scolari’s Chelsea due to suspension. There were question marks regarding how United would cope with the physical challenges of Didider Drogba, arguably in his prime at the time. In stepped Jonny Evans. This was his league debut for the club, and his performance that day not only managed to shackell the big Ivorian, but also typified the Evans game that he is churning out as consistently as ever: he played without fear- coming up against Drogba is not a test some defenders anticipate with relish; his calmness on the ball combined with the appetite to combat the physical battle secured a decent point away from home.
Evans was picked up by United from local side Greenisland FC, located about 8 miles from Evans’ hometown Belfast. Incidentally, Greenisland have a knack of producing players who go on to make it professionally, United also recruited Evans’ brother Corry and Craig Cathcart from the minnows. Evans suitably impressed United onlookers at the Manchester United Centre of Excellence in Belfast, he was invited there at 9 years old. The following year, Evans got the call to trial in Manchester. Evans’ success at this tender age, meant his family had to relocate to Manchester (at the time, FA regulations meant players could only be taken on if they lived within an hour and a half of the club), for Jonny to make it at United, this sacrifice was necessary. Like many who graduate from the United conveyor belt, development was enhanced by spending temporary spells away from the club. Evans took in vital loan spells, firstly at United’s Belgian feeder club Royal Antwerp, then ex-United inspiration Roy Keane took Evans to Sunderland, also where Danny Welbeck enjoyed a successful loan spell. Evans’ two spells there consisted of Sunderland gaining promotion to the Premier League, picking up their young player of the year award in the process, and the following season helping them avoid relegation from the big time.
It was once famously put that ‘life is not all skittles and beer’. That has certainly been the case during Evans’ fledgling United career. There have been a few instances where Evans has been subject to scapegoat status, and vilified by some sections of United supporters. For instance, on a miserable winter night at Upton Park, West Ham ran riot in a 4-0 drubbing against our second string, on duty as it was a Carling Cup tie. Evans was culpable for two of West Ham’s four that night, Ferguson made it no secret that he was livid with Evans’ abject performance, subsequently substituting him after 72 minutes, the next time Evans would be back in a red shirt would be the following January, such was his horror show. His difficult 2010-11 campaign was compounded with a sending off against Bolton, a crude lunge brought the curtain down on a torrid nine months for Evans, only making 13 appearances that year, the fewest in his professional career to date.
Going into the 2011-12 season, it was make or break for the Northern Irish defender. They say ‘one man’s misfortune is another man’s gain’, this could not have been more true regarding Evans. Following the horrendous ruptured cruciate ligament injury that abruptly ended Nemanja Vidic’s season in December, Evans was thrust into first-team action yet again, this was the ultimate chance for redemption. He had more than a point to prove after being sent off in that 1-6, Evans self-admitted that red card was the nadir of his career, talking off the field is one thing, letting your football do the talking is another completely. What was to follow was a miraculous transformation.
During this sublime spell of high-class defending from Evans, he received high-praise from the manager as a result of his stellar showings. Sir Alex said, “I don’t know what the fans thought but there were never any doubts in my mind about Evans. He had a period of a few injuries but he has toughened up now, he’s done a lot of work in the gymnasium and he’s 24 years of age. He’s been a top player for us this year. There is no doubt he has been helped playing alongside the experience of Rio and he is now arguably the best defender in the country.
“I must admit my heart sank a little when I learned just how long Nemanja Vidic was going to be out. He and Rio Ferdinand had become the cornerstone of our defence but Rio responded brilliantly, despite his back problem, and has now struck up a fine partnership with Evans. Together they have been rock solid to give us great consistency in defence.”
In recent times Evans has not only received praise from the manager, but also from those with an affinity for the club past or present. David May had this to say, “Jonny’s got characteristics of Rio and Nemanja. He’s laidback on the ball, he doesn’t panic, he’s got two great feet and he’s not scared of getting hurt. He’s actually similar to Paul McGrath too – he reads the game well and he’s very quick. He has a long way to go, but he’s on the way to becoming a world class defender.” Evans formed a solid partnership with Rio during the second half of last season, and Rio said, “He will probably be Northern Ireland captain at some point in the near future. He’s a top, top player and he’ll have a major part to play at Old Trafford in the coming years.”
It has certainly not been plain-sailing for Evans in his four professional years at United. He has had to side-step and shrug off competition from various other quality centre-backs that we possessed in our setup at the time. The manager, in our match against Stoke City, took to his programme notes to wax lyrical over their captain and ex-United protege Ryan Shawcross. Ferguson has publicly acknowledged that it was with regret and one of his tougher decisions during his United dynasty to give Shawcross first-team football he couldn’t guarantee at United. Ferguson admitted, he is a quality player I have wished – particularly of late – was still at Old Trafford,”. “The problem was that at the time of his release we had an especially strong group of young centre-halves and it was becoming impossible to give them all games at the level their progress warranted. Therein was the problem at the time, not just for Shawcross. Evans was loaned to Sunderland during this period, the competition between the youngsters was not the only hinderance- Ferdinand and Vidic were in their prime at this stage and it was a Herculean task to dislodge them from the starting eleven. Evans saw off the competition provided by Spaniard Gerard Pique. Pique, like Evans was very comfortable in possession, but perhaps shirked the physicalities and rugged nature of the Premier League. One vivid memory of Pique was in a bitterly disappointing away defeat to Bolton, who in typical Sam Allardyce fashion, threw balls into the box and Pique couldn’t handle it. Once Barcelona showed interest in signing the player who initially came through their own ranks, Ferguson’s mind was seemingly made up. With a shortage of physical teams in La Liga and playing every week in Barcelona’s defence, Pique has become one of the best defenders in world football, already winning the amount of trophies some never get to experience. Pique is still only 25. Ferguson is adamant that he made the right decision in retaining Evans over Pique. That there is high praise.
Ferdinand and Vidic are older now, a catalogue of defensive injuries that has been the main Achilles heel for United over the past couple of seasons, has certainly helped Evans to nail down a first-team spot and become an understated defensive constant. Evans recognises this, “I now feel more confident in my ability to push for a first team place here. I gained an insight into life at another Premier League club, playing in front of big crowds, getting used to their expectations, and it brought my game on more than I could have imagined.” One thing Nemanja Vidic’s absence meant was a reduced threat from set-pieces. Evans is trying to rectify that and has become more of a goal threat lately. It took him 118 games to open his United account, the opener in a 5-0 drubbing against Wolves last season. He has recently struck twice this season, a terrific header to open the scoring in our 3-0 away victory over the Toon Army, and he scored a crucial goal in our comeback victory over Braga in our last Champions League match, the equalising goal which set us up to go on and win the match. If Evans can add a goal threat to his ever-improving defensive work, maybe the loss of Vidic will not be as dramatic and costly over the coming months.
It is hard to believe that Evans is only 24 years old, he still has the potential to improve and will become the most important defender at the club when the manager believes it’s time for Rio and Vida to step aside. Evans is keen to keep the trend of Irish players at United going, something which will only benefit us in the years ahead. The laughing stock tag seems a distant memory.