Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill doesn’t expect Manchester United star Jonny Evans to be available for the international friendly with Finland later this month.
Speaking exclusively to the Times, O’Neill revealed that he doesn’t anticipate Newtownabbey man Evans being fit in time for the mid-August match at Windsor Park. He is, however, hoping the influential defender will be ready for the World Cup qualifying campaign opener away to Russia in September.
“I would hope to have the strongest squad possible for the Finland match, injuries permitting,” O’Neill said. “Obviously, we don’t expect to have Jonny available because he’s had ankle surgery but we hope he will be available for September.”
He may not have won any major silverware with United last year but Evans’s consistent top-class performances on the pitch certainly caught the eye. In the absence of injured club captain Nemanja Vidic, he enjoyed a fantastic year with the Old Trafford club. In April his boss, Sir Alex Ferguson, hailed the 24-year-old’s “rock solid” partnership with the experienced Rio Ferdinand and claimed he was “arguably, the best defender in the country”.
O’Neill said it would be “hard to disagree” with Ferguson’s analysis of Evans’s commanding displays at the heart of the United back line.
“I thought he was fantastic last year,” he said. “Any time I saw him, he was as good as any player on the pitch. His use of the ball, his composure, not only in possession but also when he was defending; he was excellent. United had Smalling and Phil Jones and maybe people didn’t think Jonny was going to get the opportunities he did, but I think he established himself ahead of those players and he and Ferdinand really became the first choice partnership.”
Since his full international debut in the memorable win 3-2 over Spain in 2006, Evans quickly became an integral part of the Northern Ireland team. To date, he has won 27 caps and scored one goal and O’Neill said it is “invaluable” to be able to call on a player of his ability.
“He is playing for the one of the biggest clubs in the world,” he said. “We know how important he is to Northern Ireland. It’s invaluable for us to have Jonny available. He has been great for me to work with in the short time I’ve been in the job.
“It’s disappointing that he’s injured but I’m sure he didn’t want the season to end. He missed a couple of games towards the end of the campaign with the ankle injury. But I have no doubt he will build on last year and have another great season.”
Looking ahead to the match with Fabio Capello’s Russia, O’Neill told the Times: “The Russia game will be very tough. In the Finland game, it’s important we again nail down what we are trying to do with the team. We had big changes in the squad from the Norway match to the Holland game. I would hope that the squad we have available for Finland will be as close as possible to what we have available for Russia.
“It will be difficult because there has been a change of management and we will probably know a little bit more about them after they play in August but they have some top class players. The Russian league is very strong at the minute, financially, and with the quality of players they have. But we will be well prepared and we will go there believing that we can take a result.”
Report by John Gillespie | Twitter: Times_Sport