Leicester defender Jonny Evans has built a storied career but the triple Premier League champion is determined to write new chapter with FA Cup glory as he prepares for Southampton showdown
- In Leicester’s Jonny Evans’ trophy-laden career he has still never won the FA Cup
- The Foxes face a semi-final with Southampton, a chance to change that stat
- Evans is one of the most respected professionals in the Premier League
When you’ve had a career as illustrious as Jonny Evans, the stories come thick and fast.
Just the three Premier League titles, a World Club Cup and two Leagues Cup won, though no FA Cup as yet, something he can take a step towards rectifying on Sunday against Southampton in the semi-final at Wembley.
Yet surely nothing tops the tale of how he was given his international debut for Northern Ireland in 2006 thanks to the assistant manager’s teenage son knowing him from the computer game, Championship Manager?
Jonny Evans’ has a big trophy cabinet and many stories to tell, but the FA Cup is next on his list
Evans takes up the yarn, the key characters being Northern Ireland manager Lawrie Sanchez, his assistant Terry Gibson and Gibson’s then teenage son, Joshua.
It was September 2006 and Northern Ireland had just lost 3-0 to Iceland at home so the pressure was on Sanchez, while Evans was a 19-year-old on loan at Antwerp, so not particularly on anyone’s radar, certainly not that of the national team manager.
‘It was Terry Gibson’s son,’ says Evans. ‘That story is true! Lawrie Sanchez had not seen me play. The team had lost heavily at the weekend to Iceland and I was back home playing for the Under-21 team.
‘Terry Gibson’s son was saying we have this [Northern Irish] guy in the Under-21s and he plays for Antwerp but I know he’s on loan from Manchester United, because I have him on Championship Manager, so we might as well bring him in and have a look at him.
Evans began his international career as a teen and now faces-up to the world’s best strikers
Ex-Northern Ireland boss Lawrie Sanchez hadn’t even heard of the defender before his debut
‘I came in and ended up playing three days later against Spain. The team had lost heavily and he [Lawrie] wanted to shake the team up. He ended up throwing me in at left-back and I was marking Fernando Torres. Sergio Ramos played right-back so I had him bombing on a bit on my side.’
The punchline? Northern Ireland won 3-2 against the Spain team that would be both European and world champions within the next four years. ‘We did a good job,’ says Evans with customary understatement.
‘It was a backs-to-the-wall performance and a famous night.’
Backs to the wall? They scored three goals against Iker Casillas, Ramos, Carles Puyol, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Torres, Raul and David Villa. ‘Well, we scored three goals but they were all on the counter-attack!’
It has taken the move to Leicester, via West Brom, for Evans to appreciate how well he is regarded in the game.
Evans was cast-off by Manchester United but they lived to regret selling the centre-back
As Manchester United have spent the last few years attempting to solve their centre-half problems, their former player, effectively forced out by the signing of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, has quietly been forging a reputation as one of the best in the Premier League.
‘I probably didn’t realise it at the start but in my first couple of months at Leicester, I do feel like, having those trophies and medals behind you, they look up to me a lot … which surprised me a little bit, when I came here. Players respect what you’ve achieved in the game.’
It is perhaps a surprise that it surprised him. ‘Possibly. Maybe that’s my own personality, knocking that back and never sort of feeling like that. They brought it up a few times about the medals and trophies.
‘Obviously, what they achieved here was phenomenal, the year they won the league and there’s a few of those boys around. [But] they’re always very complimentary about the career that I’ve had.’
Evans now acts as a respected, experienced leader in the talented Leicester dressing room
Evans grew up on the Rathcoole estate in Belfast and was scouted by Manchester United’s Northern Ireland Centre of Excellence, the whole family moving to Manchester when he was 16.
Loan spells at Antwerp and Sunderland, where he won the Championship under Roy Keane, preceded eight successful years at the club under Sir Alex Ferguson. Therein lies the reason as to why he is reluctant to shout about his medals.
‘[At United] there was varying amount of games I played, whether through injury or having to fight my way in against top players. I was very grateful for that experience and being a part of a team that was winning things. And I felt like I contributed a lot. I’m very proud of all those trophies.
‘But, on the other hand, you had players in your team like Ryan Giggs who probably had 12, 13 Premier League titles. So, you never felt like you could get carried away by winning a couple.
The defender’s days playing alongside United icon birthed his feet-on-the-ground attitude
‘You were surrounded by people who had won quadruple the number of trophies that you had won, so you kind of always felt insignificant.’
His medals aren’t even on display. ‘I’ve got them in the house but I don’t have them hanging up or anything. Maybe that is something in the future, which I’ll probably do when I retire. Something to show the kids.
‘Once you start getting your medals out and looking at them, or maybe looking at the past, that’s the time you know it might be the end.
‘Sub-consciously you probably put it off and don’t think about it too much and try not to look back as there is so much going on in your life and in football at this moment.’
This is pure Ferguson, the mark of a serial winner, refusing to rest on laurels. ‘He set that example for us. He had that and we followed and picked up on it. Coming through as a young lad, there was this mentality set from the youth team up.
‘It was always drilled into us… from being the best team at county level, reserve level, you get used to winning and it becomes a habit.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s prints are all over Evans’ mentality towards his game, years after he left
‘When that stops it can become a bit of a shock. Sometimes you would get a bit surprised at how much he really hated losing and it really fed through to everyone.’
Evans laughs when he recalls one of the former United manager’s most-infamous hairdryer moments, when an apoplectic Ferguson was held back by assistant Mike Phelan as he ranted at Evans for losing the ball against AC Milan in the San Siro in 2010.
‘I talk about it a lot because it gets brought up a lot because it was caught on camera quite well!’ he says.
‘He was like that a lot. Very direct! He would let you know how he felt and because we’d scored a goal, I went over for a drink and I thought I was going to get a pat on the back. But I didn’t….’ They did win the game 3-2, however.
‘Sir Alex always talked about concentration. He spoke about it before most games. It was probably one of his biggest messages that he gave to us. He wanted everyone so entrenched in the game.
‘He’d talk about the ex-captains he’d had who had really impressed him throughout the years. He spoke about Bryan Robson a lot, how he would go into this zone, this competitive zone, and he wanted all of us to be like that, to have the ultimate concentration for 90 minutes.’
Brendan Rodgers rules his squad with a similar disciplinarian authority over his players
Nothing compares with Sir Alex, there was a touch of the Glaswegian authority last weekend when Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers dropped James Maddison, Ayoze Perez and Hamza Choudhury for breaching Covid regulations.
Given that Leicester subsequently lost 3-2 at West Ham, it may cost Leicester a Champions League place – they sit third on 56 points – but the broader point of respecting team-mates’ sacrifices and, more widely, those of the whole county, was deemed more important.
‘The way he dealt with it was fantastic. He’s very decisive and he let all the other players know where he stood, he was very open with his dialogue, his communication. As players, you can only have respect for that. The matter is dealt with now and it has been dealt with in the right way.’
At Leicester, there is a new generation, with only Kasper Schmeichel, Wes Morgan, Marc Albrighton, Christian Fuchs and Jamie Vardy surviving from the 5,000-1 miracle title winners.
Evans’ knowledge will be crucial if Leicester are to bag silverware with their young squad
Having Evans onside should help the likes of Wesley Forfana, Harvey Barnes, Caglar Soyuncu, Wilfred Ndidi and Maddison over the line to their first trophy. Beating Southampton today and reaching the FA Cup final would be a giant step.
‘Hopefully, that’s what I’d like to do, to be able to achieve something with Leicester. That’s the plan for the club. Always being in there, always be there knocking on the door getting to finals and really putting the club in a position where we can win things. And leave a legacy.’
A reminder of just what a winning machine United used to be is evident when Evans is asked whether anything, in the realms of playing football, can compare to losing a final.
‘I don’t think I’ve lost a final…’ he says, genuinely puzzled by the question and racking his brains to see whether he can give a better answer. ‘I was on the bench for the Champions League final in Rome [which United lost to Barcelona in 2009],’ he offers.
‘At Leicester, we had the League Cup semi-final against Villa last year. No doubt about it, losing the final would have been worse, I can tell you that right now. We got a little sense of that, the pressure building up to the semi final.
Leicester suffered an agonising Carabao Cup semi-final exit in last season’s competition
‘Over two legs, at Villa Park, the atmosphere was really good that night and at the time we were playing a lot better than Aston Villa and maybe we let that little bit of pressure build up too much and didn’t relax into the game.
‘We had chances but we also know it doesn’t matter how well you can play in the game, you can dominate the game, but things can just turn and they scored a last minute winner to take that away from us. There was definitely a bit of envy watching them in the final against City.’
Last year Leicester let the Champions League spot and a major final slip away. This year, Evans believes it will be different, thanks to Rodgers. ‘It doesn’t just happen overnight. Even in the two and a half years I’ve been here, I’ve noticed the progress the club has made and the team, especially psychologically.
‘Especially from last year, when for Brendan it was his first full season. Psychologically he has managed to bring the team to a place where we feel we can compete with the big boys.
Evans is certain that the Foxes won’t repeat their disastrous end to last season’s campaign
‘It’s really important. That takes time. You just have to keep chipping away. And hopefully before long it becomes natural.’
Today there will be personal scores to settle. ‘I’ve never reached an FA Cup final. It’s something that’s ate away at me over the years. I think the closest we got was probably with United in a semi-final which we lost on penalties to Everton.’
More importantly, though, there is a legacy to leave in what could his greatest triumph.
‘Winning something with Leicester is definitely a more difficult thing to achieve. That’s not putting any slight on Manchester United’s achievements. They’re a club that’s set up to be a winning machine.
‘That’s something that Leicester are trying to do. Maybe winning something with Leicester would put the achievements up there with one of the best for me.’
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