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.