Tag Jonny Evans

Tag Jonny Evans

After years in the shadows Evans becomes the main man

October 29, 2013 Tags: Opinion 10 comments
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Over the years it has become a routine for Manchester United’s manager and academy coaches to promote a young player into the first team. The process seems pretty simple; develop teenagers, send them out on loan for a few years, and then after a few more, at the age of 22-24, you have a first team player. There are many examples, including Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley in the current squad. In other, rarer, cases, a player of exceptional talent, such as Adnan Januzaj, comes through and it is impossible to hold them back from the first team.

And then there is Jonny Evans, who has always shown signs that he is capable of taking over from Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, but never actually being good enough to take over from Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Evans’ timeline since his return from loan at Sunderland in 2008 has been full of bumps and revivals.

When younger, most first team players at Old Trafford enjoy their steepest growth at a smaller club either on loan, or before being bought by United. As is often said in cricket, ‘a test match is no place to learn how to play test cricket’. The Old Trafford parallel might be, ‘the Manchester United first team is no place to learn how to play for Manchester United’.

Evans has always been a talented defender and spent his late teenage years on loan for a season at Royal Antwerp and then two at Sunderland. In the North East he won Sunderland’s ‘Youth Player of the Season’ as he helped the Mackems gain promotion to the Premier League. After returning from loan, Sir Alex Ferguson had a decision to make as he had many talented defenders at the club, including Gerard Piqué and Ryan Shawcross. He kept Evans, sold Piqué to Barcelona, and Shawcross to Stoke City.

“The problem was that at the time of [Shawcross’] release we had an especially strong group of young centre-halves,” said Ferguson more than five years ago.

“It was becoming impossible to give them all games at the level their progress warranted and something had to give. We made the right decision keeping Jonny Evans.”

But for two seasons Evans found himself in the toughest situation possible for a young defender trying to get into the team: Vidic and Ferdinand at their peak, which limited the Irishman’s appearances. Evans was in the team only when there was a need for squad rotation.

At the start of the 2010-2011 season, with Ferdinand out through injury, Evans found himself playing the full ninety minutes alongside Vidic. It wasn’t great to watch as United twice conceded late goals against Everton and Fulham. With a skinny build, looking short on confidence and being muscled away from the ball by players like Bobby ‘when you are in row Z and the ball hits your head’ Zamora, fans began to wonder whether Sir Alex made the right decision.

Perhaps the lowest point of Evans career, aside from the public hair dryer treatment at AC Milan, came as the Reds ended a 29 match unbeaten run at West Ham United, losing 4-0.

“If you analyse it, the goals we gave away were absolutely too soft. They were terrible goals,” said Ferguson in the aftermath.

“They were young players, too young to carry these types of mistakes. They’re 20, 21 years old. They can’t make mistakes like this and still win.”

The performance saw Evans dropped for six weeks, and it got worse as the season concluded with the Belfast-born player making the lowest league appearances total in his career.

Sir Alex’s confidence never fully faded though as Evans was shifted two places further up the pecking order when Wes Brown and John O’Shea were sold, with youngsters Phil Jones and Chris Smalling brought to the club.

“Evans, I think, needed a shake,” notes Ferguson in his recent autobiography. “He didn’t appreciate me signing Jones and Smalling. It caused him to question my opinion of him,”

The 2011-12 campaign started with United struggling to keep clean sheets, but scoring heavily at the other end. The Reds conceded six goals in the 7-6 victory  over City that September (ahem! – Rant factual accuracy department), and pressure piled up on Evans.

But the scenario changed after Vidic’s knee injury in a Champions League in December 2011. Evans was thrust into the team alongside Ferdinand – a move that was the making of the younger man. Evans confidence grew, and the player began to make tackles higher up the pitch, especially with Ferdinand growing slower by the game.

United conceded just one goal in four Premier League games that December, although Evans’ career hit another bump after a reported night out on Boxing Day. Evans, Wayne Rooney and Darron Gibson were fined a week’s wage and left out United’s 3-2 defeat against Blackburn Rovers at Old Trafford. The Irishman didn’t play in the 3-0 defeat at Newcastle United three days later either.

Perhaps the incident resonated though, with Evans’ return coinciding with just one goal conceded in United’s next three games.

The personal transformation was remarkable over the next few months, with greater authority in Evans’ defending far more prominent. No longer a reserve, by the season’s end Evans would be heralded by Ferguson as “the best defender in the country”.

Confidence grew –  last season the defender scored four of the five goals he has struck in his career. Evans was even in the team ahead of Vidic for United’s Champions League game at Santiago Bernabeu, perhaps the strongest possible display of faith.

So, did Jonny Evans learn how to play for Manchester United by playing for Manchester United?

Deployed alongside two of the best centre-backs in history, Evans has clearly learned from Ferdinand and Vidic. And he has probably become a complete defender at the age of 25 – a fantastic reader of the game, who makes crucial interceptions behind a porous midfield, and no longer man-handled off the ball.

This season has finally brought a major change in the defensive pecking order. Moyes persisted with Ferdinand and Vidic until United’s 5-4 win at the Etihad (Final warning – Rant factual accuracy department), but has brought Evans into the team after that. No longer the culprit of sloppy defending, Evans’ has turned into the manager’s trusted man.

“When you win the league you need five or six players who are consistently good,” Sir Alex once said. Has the former Everton manager identified Evans as one of his six? Time will tell.

If the player is supported through the occasional error, which he deserves at just 25, Evans could become United’s most precious defender. After being used for four years as a squad player, retained to keep Ferdinand and Vidic fit, the tables have now turned. Perhaps the time has finally come when Evans is United’s backbone and Ferdinand fades into his last chapter at the club.

“There is a lot of embarrassment in the dressing room”

October 23, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 37 comments

It was, said Sir Alex Ferguson, the worst result of a 50-year career in football. Manchester City’s 6-1 victory at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon brought the Blues three vital points in the Premier League title race and total humiliation for the Scot’s side in its own back yard. Defeat to City in last season’s FA Cup semi-final was bad enough but a thrashing at Old Trafford is, for the Scot and fans alike, totally unacceptable. This reality, Ferguson says, hit home in a silent dressing room post-match.

If the result is a media-friendly ‘statement’ by City then Ferguson is right to hold United’s players predominantly to account for it. No amount of United pressure prior to the Blues’ opening goal will mask the Reds’ suicidal second-half performance. Jonny Evans’ dismissal after taking down Mario Ballotelli in the 47th minute was inevitable; the performance from then on in was absolutely not.

“It was our worst ever day,” admitted Ferguson.

“It’s the worst result in my history, ever. Even as a player I don’t think I ever lost 6-1. That’s challenge for me too. I can’t believe the scoreline. The first goal was a blow for sure but it was retrievable at 1-0. The sending off was a killer for us. We kept attacking when we went 4-1 down and we should have just said: ‘We’ve had our day.’

“When we went to 3-1, 4-1 we should have settled for that. We kept attacking and we should have just said: ‘We’ve had our day.’ But our two full-backs were playing like wingers.  It’s all right playing the history books but common sense has to come into it. We just kept attacking. They were attacking three versus two. It was crazy football. I thought with the experience we’ve got – Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra – they would [defend more] but we just kept attacking. Sometimes there has to be common sense about it. It was a bad day.”

Indeed, the result was not only Ferguson’s worst-ever result but United’s heaviest at home for 55 years. Such, perhaps, is City’s progress since Abu Dahbi’s oil-fueled takeover in 2008. But not to this extent. Not at Old Trafford. Not under Ferguson’s watch. This was hara-kiri on a very grand scale, against the worst possible opposition, and a result that will not soon be forgotten.

Certainly the implied assertion that United should have at, say, 3-1, accepted defeat will not sit well with supporters. But Ferguson is also right that in playing to history, as the manager noted , indeed to the hyperbole of a ‘never-say-die’ attitude, United allowed defeat to become a calamity. Loss to City at Old Trafford after all the Blues’ recent spending comes with no overwhelming shock. Conceding six certainly does.

If there is any silver lining in this disaster – at least for those United fans prepared to throw themselves under the nearest bus – it is in knowledge that Ferguson will ensure no permanent damage to the collective consciousness. There can be no better manager for this situation than the Scot.

“We’ll come back. By January we’ll be okay. We usually get the show on the road in the second half of the season and that will have to be the case. We’ve played all the teams around us and they have all to play each other so the second half of the season is important to us now. We will react, no question about that.

“It’s a perfect result for us to react to because there is a lot of embarrassment in the dressing room and that will make an impact. What did concern me was the goals for and against. Goal difference may count. Last year it was in our favour, most years it is in our favour…this time maybe not.”

More results like this and Ferguson will have no need to be concerned with goal difference though – United will be fortunate to be within touching distance come May so inept were the Scot’s defenders. Not to mention a central midfield that was so effectively eviscerated by the opposition from 30 minutes onwards that supporters again offers cause to question both Darren Fletcher and Anderson’s effectiveness.

The manager’s decision to include no central midfield options on the bench was both a mistake and a reflection of Ferguson’s underwhelming resources available in this area. It is a concern repeatedly voiced over the past two years. No matter Tom Cleverley’s continued injury absence, a strategy that relied solely on the rookie’s fitness and form was always a busted flush.

One disaster does not a season make of course, and United will certainly return from this. Upcoming fixtures with Aldershot Town in the Carling Cup and Everton at Goodison Park will provide an immediate opportunity at redemption. In that there is temptation to send out the heavy artillery at Aldershot’s 7,000-capacity Recreation Ground on Tuesday night simply to get the process underway.

For Evans, whose fatal contribution to Sunday’s calamity cannot be ignored, the consequences may be more serious. While Rio Ferdinand’s poor header precipitated another City attack, Evans’ needless foul on Balotelli helped turn loss into club-wide embarrassment. The Northern Irishman recently admitted a downturn in form last season was due to complacency. One wonders whether the 23-year-old has eliminated that scourge from his game.

Belfast-born Evans recent progress will now halt as the defender sits out the Everton game, with Nemanja Vidic and Phil Jones both ready to step in. Whomever takes up the reigns it can, as the well-worn cliché goes, only get better.

Focused Evans right to rue complacency

October 22, 2011 Tags: Opinion 2 comments

There is something to admire in Jonny Evans, the 23-year-old defender who has, while not proving doubters wrong, come back from the brink of Old Trafford irrelevancy to claim a place in Sir Alex Ferguson’s side this season. The Manchester United defender admitted this week that he allowed an element of complacency to invade his game last season. It is a claim that will draw raised eyebrows, but only for the brutal honesty and not its factual accuracy. Indeed, so poor was the Northern Irishman’s 2010/11 campaign that the defender should count himself lucky to still be at the club.

The concern with Evans’ performances last season was not simply the markedly lower level of performance but the repeated occasions in which the Belfast-born defender was physically and mentally outwitted by opponents. Evans had, it seemed, moved forward after a two successful loan periods with Sunderland, only to take two steps back last season.

Yet, the defender’s problems were not, it seems, a lack of talent but a failure of application if the player himself is to be believed.

“Maybe I took my eye off the ball a little bit,” admitted the defender, who has started seven matches this season.

“Maybe I relaxed a bit too much and thought it was going to come as easily as the previous two seasons. If you looked over the years, a lot of youngsters have come into the team and had a good season or two, then take a little dip.

“Sometimes you do think you are immune from it. All of a sudden it hits you. You have to regroup and have a word with yourself. I have enough people around me who are happy to bring me down to earth. My family and friends do that. I have friends who would say: ‘You didn’t play too well today’. I might have thought they were being cheeky at the time but they are right. They will tell you. Sometimes you have to take on board what the people closest to you say. You have to be honest with yourself as well.”

If the penny has dropped then it has come not a moment too soon for the player, with the competition for places in United’s central defence stronger than ever.

Evans has not proven bullet-proof this season, with the player’s performance in United’s 3-1 victory over Chelsea, for example, worryingly lax. But the defender’s level has risen sharply enough that the Northern Irishman is now seemingly first alternate should either – or both – of Rio Ferdinand and captain Nemanja Vidic not be available to Sir Alex.

Not unsurprisingly, the patience shown by his manager and frequent berth in Ferguson’s starting team this season has increased Evans’ confidence, despite the two-from-five competition for places in central defence.

“I feel more assured now,” Evans told the Manchester Evening News this week.

“When you go through a stage of not playing well, there is a bit of pressure on you and you can feel sometimes the crowd are maybe getting on your back – you think: ‘Stuff it, what have I got to lose?’ You go out there, relax, play your football and go home. A lot of players coming to United can struggle. I have never been one to shirk a challenge. Whenever things are tough, I always feel as though I can respond and not hide away.”

Not that Evans place is assured. If anything the central defender’s poor form last season simply rubber stamped Ferguson’s early decision to invest heavily in Blackburn Rovers’ defender Phil Jones in the summer. In fact, Chris Smalling’s continued progression and Jones’ headline-grabbing talent continues to remind fans, and one hopes Evans, of the intense competition.

Should Evans, who turns 24 in January, fail to progress this season others surely will in his stead. Indeed, that Evans is yet to complete a 20-game Premier League season says much for the player’s bit-part status at Old Trafford. It will take more than half-a-dozen solid performances to transform the Irishman from squad to automatic pick.

Yet, while competition remains hot, Evans will continue to compete with Smalling and Jones to deputise for the increasingly infirm Ferdinand and Vidic. The latter pair may remain of the very highest quality but neither has spent enough time on the pitch this season. Ferdinand, in particular, is now vulnerable to the challenge from his younger colleagues.

Yet, for all Evans growing confidence and better performances his apparent lack of flexibility may count against him. Note than both Jones and Smalling have each been deployed in more than one position this season.

With that in mind Evans must learn a tough lesson from the past year. Any evidence of further complacency will surely be rigorously punished by Sir Alex. It is a lesson that Evans cannot afford to learn twice.

Ferdinand ready to fight ticking clock

July 22, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 1 comment

Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand is facing up to the autumn of his career, with three young central defenders ready to challenge the 32-year-old for a place in Sir Alex Ferguson’s team. But, says Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and new signing Phil Jones will have to prove they are hungrier than the Peckham-born defender to do so.

Indeed, with fitness issues a concern for Ferdinand over the past three seasons there are no guarantees that the England defender will finish the coming campaign as Ferguson’s first choice to partner Nemanja Vidic. The former Leeds United player will surely begin the campaign alongside club captain Vidic, but with Smalling outstanding in his début campaign, £16 million Jones desperate to play and Evans with plenty to prove, competition for defensive places is strong than ever at Old Trafford.

Yet Ferdinand has a warning for United’s younger defenders, challenging Smalling, Jones and Evans to show the kind of desire that has taken the Londoner to the top of the world game.

“I remember what I was like when I was young,” Ferdinand told reporters on United’s US tour.

“I remember looking up at Slaven Bilic, Marc Rieper, Alvin Martin and Steve Potts at West Ham. I was only a kid but I used to sit on the bench and think I should be playing. I am sure these guys think the same thing. If they have got anything about them they should.

“They are all talented footballers and, I believe, Manchester United players. At some point I am sure they will take over the reins. But I am competitive and I don’t want to be giving up my position to anybody. My task is to prove I am hungrier than them.

“They can’t be in awe of me. If they are, they will get shipped out. That is the way it is. Your desire has to be to play. I understand and respect that. That is why they are here.”

The club’s concern with Ferdinand – the reason the 32-year-old is not club captain – is, of course, the defender’s ongoing fitness problems. After all, Ferdinand has not started 30 Premier League games for United in three years, with ongoing back problems having threatened to curtail the player’s career. Indeed, a feeling that United was prepared to sell enticed Tottenham Hotspur to bid for the defender last summer.

Yet Ferdinand claims that the back problem, which ruined most of the player’s 2009/10 campaign, is no longer an issue, although a calf injury robbed United of the defender for a large part of last season.

“My fitness is OK. I am nowhere near where I want to be yet but we have three weeks left,” added Ferdinand.

“Last season, I had no problems with my back, which was a good thing, but I did pull my calf which kept me out for a chunk of the year. Hopefully this time around I won’t have anything like that and I can continue to play a consistent amount of games.”

Despite ongoing concerns Ferdinand will remain key to United’s chances of success on the domestic and European fronts in the coming season. With inexperienced back-up in central positions and the da Silva brothers barely out of their teens, Ferdinand’s maturity means the former West Ham United player is likely to be rotated only for those games where Ferguson typically does so; against mid- to-lower table opposition.

But Ferguson will also be concerned that Smalling, who played 33 games for United last season, Evans and Jones all play enough football. The United manager’s revelation this week that Jones sought assurances on the subject before joining in June is telling. The £16 million former Blackburn Rovers player started 26 Premier League games for the Lancashire club last season, seven more than Ferdinand for United.

The United manager will use pre-season as a barometer for both Jones’ talent and the youngster’s ability to handle the pressure of being a United player. After all, Smalling’s excellent début season was predicated not solely on strong performances but 21-year-old’s ability to remain cool under pressure. Jones’ apparent maturity well beyond his years will surely serve the 19-year-old well.

“Over the years this club has been very successful. In the last couple of years we have won trophies as well. It is great to see but it does bring pressure,” adds Ferdinand.

“It is not overwhelming though. It is part of being a Manchester United player. You have to deal with all that stuff. It separates you from being a Manchester United player and not.”

Entering his 10th season as a United player Ferdinand has more than met that challenge. Smalling, meanwhile, has offered a promising start to his United career just as Evans’ future becomes a matter for debate. Jones’ biggest tests are yet to come.

Should Ferdinand once again show signs of age the trio will be more than willing to step into the elder-statesman’s boots.

Is Smalling, not Evans, Ferdinand’s natural successor?

January 5, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 33 comments

Whatever the travails of Jonny Evans this season – it has been the worst campaign of the Irishman’s short career – the greatest stumbling block to the 22-year-old’s progress might be close to home. Indeed, Chris Smalling drew praise from Sir Alex Ferguson, declaring the player as the “club’s future” following an assured display against Stoke City last night.

Smalling’s performance was another confident step by the 20-year-old former Fulham defender in a career that has progressed rapidly from the player’s days in non-league football at Maidstone United. And while the defender has started just eight games this season, mostly in Europe and the Carling Cup, he has looked increasingly at home among more illustrious company.

“Chris Smalling was excellent,” said Ferguson today. “At 20 years of age he is doing very well. I am pleased with his improvement. He is certainly the future of the club.”

It’s a long way from the jitters Smalling suffered in the second half of last season with Fulham, when the proposed move north seemingly affected the players form. Then Fulham manager Roy Hodgson was moved to joke that Smalling was “getting all his mistakes out-of-the-way” before he officially joined United on 1 July.

However, the 6′ 5″ giant began pre-season in the United States in similar fashion, prompting one writer on this website to dub, with tongue firmly in cheek, the player ‘Appalling Smalling’.

That Ferguson was moved to defend the player after Smalling conceded a penalty in United’s 3-1 pre-season defeat to Celtic was evidence to some of the Scot’s folly in paying £10 million for the player.

Ridiculously, one prominent writer moved to declare Smalling “poor”, and claim England Under-21 central defensive partner, Blackburn Rovers youngster, Phil Jones as “twice the player”.

No longer so, with the £10 million signing improving with each outing and visibly growing in confidence. Ferguson’s praise is empty perhaps but the promise of a player who has plenty of pace, a strong touch and potentially outstanding passing skills is strong.

Moreover, the London-born defender sports a humble down-to-earth nature that will serve him well under the intense Old Trafford spotlight.

“It is nice to hear some positive words from the manager,” said the England Under-21 international.

“At the start of the season I got to play every other week but I haven’t had a game for the last few weeks. Hopefully I can make my presence felt and get many more.

“For the time being, it is all about concentration and consistency.

“That will improve the more I play. I know Vida and Rio are the first choices, I just have to make sure I do equally well when I come in, so I know I am playing my part.”

By contrast Evans would probably commit murder for a decent performance in a United shirt. He might even settle for just a partially incompetent one, such has been the defender’s utterly woeful form this season. Repeatedly out-muscled and often targeted by physical opponents, Evans has suffered the worst season in his time with United.

All is not lost but for now Evans might even benefit from a loan spell away from Old Trafford. After all, he is unlikely to feature much for Ferguson’s outfit in the coming months bar an unforeseen defensive injury crisis. It’s unlikely to happen with Ferguson not boasting enough central defenders – with Wes Brown out-of-favour and John O’Shea injured – to feel comfortable with a reserve departing.

Yet, the Irishman’s problems are not insurmountable. Physically the 22-year-old is bullied at times, with opponents quickly clocking the intimidation that Evans tends to wilt under. Mentally, low confidence has shown in an increasing positional uncertainty.

Neither lack of confidence or intimidation phases Smalling now, whose physical presence alongside Nemanja Vidic last night did much to negate Kenwyne Jones’ influence. Indeed, it was the United captain who strayed from his position to allow Stoke’s headed equaliser shortly after half-time.

And yet the decision on Ferdinand’s succession is not that far away. The 32-year-old England captain has seemingly shed the injury problems that plagued him for more than 18 months but age is no friend. Vidic too will pass 30 before the year is out.

Of course Paolo Maldini played at the very highest level into his 40s. Ferdinand’s composure might enable the Dagenham-born player to match his erstwhile hero. The player’s back might not.

In the meantime Smalling appears both willing and able to step into the beach.

Evans fit but O’Shea out for two months

January 2, 2010 Tags: , , Shorts No comments

Manchester United defender Jonny Evans is back in training and could figure for the club within 10 days but John O’Shea is out for another two months, according to manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Evans, who has suffered with an ankle injury all season, has been training with the first team this week. Irishman O’Shea picked up a thigh injury against France in November.

“There is no sign at all of recovery for John,” said Ferguson of O’Shea’s problem.

“It is his first injury at the club and he is a big loss because he is such a versatile player. We just want to get him back but it could be a couple of months yet.’

“Jonny has been involved in the football side for a few days. He is doing well and should be back quicker, within the next 10 days or so.”

However, Ferguson says that there no date set for the return of injured defender Rio Ferdinand, who has not featured for United in more than two months.

“Rio is nowhere near that but the main thing is there is no recurrence of the back problem. That is what we have been waiting for. We wanted him to come through the test of running and turning. He is doing his programme in the gymnasium, which is good and at the moment it is looking very healthy.”

Wedding bells for Evans?

September 29, 2009 Tags: Shorts No comments

Sir Alex Ferguson, always keen to encourage his players to settle down, today demanded central-defender Jonny Evans’ girlfriend “tie him down” in marriage. After demanding that Wayne Rooney marry – then procreate with – Coleen MCloughlin, Ferguson wants the Northern Irish star to walk the aisle. The Manchester United manager has long held-true that married players are less apt to get into trouble.

“I’ve always been an advocate of players being married and settled down. You know where they are. It’s good for the stability of a footballer to be married,” joked Ferguson at his pre-Champions League press conference today.

Evans, next to Ferguson, claimed to “not want to talk about it” in front of his girlfriend, sat at the press conference.

Ferguson had earlier talked about Evans progression as a footballer. Falsely accused of rape after a drunken Christmas party got out of hand in 2007, the Belfast-born player rode the storm to become a stalwart of the United defence. He has regularly filled in for the injured Rio Ferdinand and made 31 appearances in total last season, including the Carling Cup final.

“Sometimes I don’t know whether I am doing the right thing leaving Jonny out because his performance level has been so high,” said Ferguson.

“At times I have been unfair to him. But he is still young. He has a great future here and time will come when I have to put him in.

“The great thing about footballers and young players in particular is that one summer they come back and they are a different player.

“They have a different physique and they tell you by their performance that it is time for them to go into the team.

“It has happened countless times at this club and I would think it is a great worry for any experienced player that one of their own is going to take their place,” Ferguson noted.

The perennially injured Rio Ferdinand, take note.

As for the proposal, no doubt the bachelors in the United squad will remind Evans that marriage isn’t a word, it’s a sentence.