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Jonny Evans interview: ‘If Manchester United want me to stay, it won’t be a difficult conversation’

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Jonny Evans was unemployed last July when he decided to call his old team-mate Darren Fletcher.

“I was sat in my house with my wife Helen and thinking, ‘I’m not a good trainer on my own in terms of going out on the roads running’,” the Manchester United defender tells The Athletic. “Maybe the odd run or two over the years when I’ve needed to but without thinking about it, I just thought, ‘I’ll ring Fletch’.

“He answered and said, ‘Let me get back to you’. When I put the phone down, I thought, ‘There might be issues with insurance, for example’, but I just wanted to train and get my fitness.

“Fletch (United’s technical director) called back a few days later and said, ‘The manager has heard that you want to come in. You may as well train with the first team’, so I did. When I went back, seeing all the staff after being away for eight years was the best part of it all.

“From there, the situation progressed daily. There was no intimation to me that the manager wanted to sign me with a contract but the injury situation prevailed right from the start of the season. There’s never been a stage this season where it wasn’t an issue.

“But I’m an experienced Premier League player and I’ve been in many a training session over the years, including at United. It’s not like I didn’t know where the level was at. I’d had injury problems at Leicester last season, so getting up to speed physically was probably my biggest challenge but I came through. I was OK. The training at United was at a high level and I just had to adjust, but my body got used to it and once I did, I was able to handle the demands.”

During his surprise second spell at Old Trafford, the 36-year-old has been an unexpectedly prominent figure, making 29 appearances (including 17 starts) and being tasked with being the figurehead of a defence consistently ravaged by injuries.

However, with Raphael Varane, Lisandro Martinez and perhaps even Victor Lindelof all fit, Evans may not start Saturday afternoon’s FA Cup final with Manchester City.

Here, Evans speaks about rejoining United, the uncertainty of playing for an ever-changing defence, what the future might hold for him next season and what winning the FA Cup final with the club he supports would mean to him.

Had you considered retiring a year ago before you rejoined United?

Yes, I had.

I’d done a lot of travelling. I had always based my family in Cheshire, even when I was travelling up and down to West Brom for three years and then five years at Leicester. The travelling wasn’t good for my body. At the time, I was able to cope but looking back, it was becoming more difficult.

That’s when I called Fletch. United is my team near where we live, the one I’ve supported all my life. Why not? My intention was to train with the reserves, see what came up and be ready for a club when they did.

Jonny Evans, Leicester City

Evans has won the FA Cup with Leicester City in 2021 (Kirsty Wigglesworth – Pool/Getty Images)

Most fans weren’t expecting to see you playing for the first team. Were you expecting it?

I had to be ready. I’ve been able to step in when needed and try to perform, like I have throughout my entire career. I started travelling to games with the team, being in the squad, and then came Arsenal (United’s 3-1 loss at the Emirates Stadium on September 3).

It was a really hot day and Victor (Lindelof) was struggling a bit with illness during the game. I said to Harry (Maguire) as we sat on the bench: ‘I think me and you are going to come on here’. I just had a sneaky feeling that we’d end up on the pitch. We did and ended up finishing the game together. We didn’t get the result we wanted but a few weeks later, I got a start at Burnley.

And you played so well that Bruno Fernandes gave you his man of the match award…

I’ll never forget that game. I was so relaxed on the coach on the way to Burnley. I don’t think it had really sunk in that I was playing. I’m glad that I can just treat it as a game of football — that’s all it is. You’re just going to play football and should be relaxed.

I’m quite relaxed in the dressing room and don’t say much. I’m quite chilled but when I cross the white line, I become a different person.

How has still regular football this season helped you continue playing for Northern Ireland? You already have more than 100 caps for them and you’ve got to play with your brother Corry, too.

That was the one reason I didn’t want to retire. I love playing for my country. I’ve won trophies with clubs but my greatest experience as a footballer was going to play for my country in Euro 2016. It brought great emotions, playing in front of tens of thousands of travelling fans on this huge stage.

I’ve been so lucky that I’ve been able to experience this with my brother. So many players have never experienced this.

I went to watch Corry in the League One play-off final when he was captain for Sunderland (in May 2022). That day, I left training at Leicester and drove straight to Wembley. I walked into the stadium just as they were singing the national anthem. I was so proud of my brother on the pitch as captain of Sunderland. I’m sure he’s been similar watching me. It’s a privilege for the whole family.

You’ve played more games for Manchester United this season than anyone expected. What have been your high and low points?

Burnley, as I’ve explained. Then Liverpool at Anfield (a 0-0 draw in December). I loved that match. I felt like I was in a proper Man United match; proud to represent the club at Liverpool. But we only drew and didn’t win.

I had a moment on the ball where I needed to make quick turns, so you get confidence from that, and while defending, I made a block after about 10 seconds. That helped.

I loved that game; the buzz of going away from home, especially at Anfield where the fans are on you for everything that you do. You want those adrenalin moments, the huge hostility between the fans, the songs. I missed that adrenaline pumping through my body and you crave that hit, I got it at Anfield away.

Jonny Evans, Manchester United

Evans helped an out-of-form United keep a clean sheet against Liverpool at Anfield in December (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

My low point also involves Liverpool as I picked up an injury just before we played them in the FA Cup game (in March). I hurt my calf 10 minutes before the final session before the game. It was the only time in my career that I took my bib off and threw it to the ground in frustration. We won the game, which was great, but I was gutted to miss it.

United’s injuries have been horrendous this season. What’s it like for a player having to cope with being part of such a changeable defence?

Since Covid-19 and the introduction of five subs, teams have taken risks in starting players. The games are going longer too, with time added on and VAR, so I’ve been used to the changes and changing partnerships, but this season has been crazy.

There are teams in the league that have had even more injuries than us but the fact ours have been so specific to the defence has been incredible.

Look at myself and Harry. I don’t think we’ve even been in one squad together after Christmas. It’s one in, one out all the time because of injury.

Another factor is that you come in cold. At Palace away (a humiliating 4-0 defeat at the start of May), I came back after two days’ training having been out for five weeks. There’s a big risk in going from zero to a hundred in no time, but it was needs-must.

We’ve not had enough defenders, so the defenders who’ve come in have had to play every minute of every game. It hasn’t been easy because we’ve had players going out of position. We’ve had six centre-backs, with young Willy Kambwala, and still had to play Casemiro at centre-back. Our two left-backs have been out for most of the season, which has been difficult to deal with. You must change the way that you play, adjust your tactics.

The manager has handled all of this brilliantly. He just gets on with it. When he finds out that there’s an injury, he’s straight on to finding a solution for the team. He’s handled a difficult situation as well as he could.

You mentioned Willy Kambwala. He recently excelled at an equivalent of A Levels — your place as the club’s best educated player (Evans got top grades in his GCSEs and did some a year early) is under threat.

I didn’t know about that. I’m going to have to find his results and ask him about them. And if that makes me have the second-best exam results, I’ll take that.

What’s your relationship like with the other central defenders?

I’ve known Harry for a few years. We had a season together at Leicester and were building up a great partnership before he got his move to Old Trafford (in August 2019). I’ve always kept in touch with him and my family has always been close to Manchester. It has been good for both of us to be in the same dressing room. We know how each other plays.

I didn’t play with Victor when I was at United before but I feel like I know him because I followed the team as a fan. His kids went to the same nursery as mine, so I’d bump into him and have a chat and talk like I was a fan. Lisandro Martinez had his injuries this season and he’s not been in a lot of squads. I’ve hardly been on the pitch with ‘Licha’.

As a centre-back, you’re mostly trying to build relationships on the pitch, which has been hard this season. You’re trying to gain their trust and respect so that’s difficult when you’re not playing with someone.

Rafa (Varane) has been around a long time and I’ve been an admirer for a long time. I also went to the League Cup and FA Cup finals last year as a fan, when Licha and Rafa had a really good partnership. They were outstanding around the spell of winning the League Cup final.

And this year, you won’t be at the FA Cup final as a fan since you’re a player. How are you feeling about Saturday and going up against Pep Guardiola, a manager who previously tried to sign you?

It’s funny how things work out, isn’t it? If I forget about everything else this season, then just for me to be a part of an FA Cup final with Manchester United is special — I never got that in my first spell.

I’d watched the cup finals: ’96 with (Eric) Cantona, ’99 as part of the treble. I went on to win the cup with Leicester, which was wonderful, but winning the FA Cup with Man United against Man City would be wonderful.

Jonny Evans, Manchester United

Evans has made 29 appearances during his second spell with United (Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Your Leicester side were underdogs against Chelsea, who were about to be European champions, in the 2021 FA Cup final. How does that compare to facing Manchester City?

We’ll be underdogs on Saturday. Every team would be against Man City, especially with how they are playing — but we are Man United. We can’t think like we’re underdogs. We respect City as a team but we must do everything we can and we will. We had it with Leicester when we beat Chelsea after Youri Tielemens got a screamer of a goal. It can be done.

You’ve played against City twice this season, conceding three each time, though the game plan was working for the first hour at the Etihad Stadium in March and the team were leading. What can you learn from that?

City dominate the ball very well, they can force you back. Sometimes you have to be prepared to go back and defend. We knew we’d be on the edge of our box in the away game and we defended very well until (Phil) Foden, a top player at the minute, got a wonder goal.

Sometimes you need a little bit of luck going your way. You have to be brave and go for it too, especially in a final. We will be, and that could make for an exciting game. Do not write Manchester United off.

Jonny Evans, Manchester United

Evans twice came out on the losing side against Manchester City this season (James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

Have you thought about your future?

I’m in a similar position to last year because going into the off-season — I don’t know what is happening next year. I feel really relaxed and that I don’t need any answers at this moment in time.

I don’t feel like I need to ask the question either but I’m sure if the club wanted me to stay on, then it wouldn’t be a very difficult conversation for either myself or the club.

What if Real Madrid came in for you, though?

(Laughs) I’ve always preferred Barcelona.

I don’t want to force the question with my United future. I’ll be at the internationals in the summer with Northern Ireland against Spain in Mallorca. My debut was against Spain at home (in September 2006, with Northern Ireland winning 3-2 in Euro 2008 qualifying) and then we played Spain in Gran Canaria (in November 2007, a 1-0 defeat). I was suspended and always gutted that I missed that one. So now we’re going to a different Spanish island — and most of Northern Ireland plans to go, too.

What is it like to play for Manchester United fans?

The way the fans have continued to support the team has been unbelievable this season in difficult times. After Crystal Palace, it was incredible. I walked away not believing what I’d seen as fans sang and cheered for their club after a heavy defeat.

I’m sure a few were thinking, ‘Let’s leave’, when it was 2-0 or 3-0. Palace is the most difficult place to get to for a game, especially for a night game, but they stayed, they stood and they sang. They showed what their club means to them. They’re the best fans in the world and I’ll go back to being a fan when I’ve finished playing. I’m on the waiting list for a season ticket!



The Jonny Evans and Man United reunion – short-term fix or serious back-up option?

(Top photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)

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