Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has backed experienced defender Jonny Evans to keep performing at a high level for club and country.
Evans, 35, is out of contract after being relegated from the Premier League with Leicester City.
He ended an injury-plagued season by starting the Foxes’ final three matches and O’Neill believes he proved once again the quality he has.
“Jonny is good,” O’Neill said when asked how his stand-in captain was.
“He is very disappointed for them to go down and he is in a situation where he is out of contract as well.
“I am sure if he is playing his football elsewhere next season he would have liked to have left Leicester in a slightly different way but he was just unfortunate this season.
“I think by his own admission, he probably pushed very hard to get back because I think he does make a difference to Leicester’s team. I think you saw that in the final three games that he was fit to play in.”
Evans has been named in Northern Ireland’s squad for their upcoming Euro 2024 qualifier double-header away to Denmark and at home to Kazakhstan.
The former Manchester United and West Brom centre-half is in line to play for O’Neill for the first time in his second tenure as Northern Ireland manager, having had to pull out of the squad for their opening qualifiers in March.
O’Neill is delighted to be able to call on a player that has won 100 caps for his country, particularly at a time when he is missing up to eight senior players for what are crucial matches.
“I know he is keen to be a part of this squad and play,” the former Stoke City manager continued.
“It is big for us to have him back. Obviously we missed him in March and I believe that Jonny still has a lot of football left in him, both with Northern Ireland and wherever he chooses to play his football next season.”
‘We are asking a lot of young players’
Having lost at home to Finland in their second qualifier a few days after opening the campaign with an expected away win over San Marino, Friday night’s match against the Danes in Copenhagen and the visit of Kazakhstan to Belfast three days later are now vital for Northern Ireland’s qualification bid.
Having said on his re-appointment in December that the senior players in his squad would be important, O’Neill is without eight established players due to injury, including long-term absentees in captain Steven Davis and Leeds United midfielder Stuart Dallas.
It has meant he has once again selected a very young and inexperienced squad – including three new call-ups in West Ham United striker Callum Marshall, Larne forward Lee Bonis and Nottingham Forest defender Aaron Donnelly – and he has warned about the risks in having to rely too heavily on youngsters.
“I still think we have got everything to play for in this campaign,” he continued.
“The next two games are going to be very important and then obviously we have a double away header in September which will be difficult, so we are going to ask a lot of a number of young players in this group.
“The senior players that we have with us at this moment in time, we really can’t afford to lose any more.”
O’Neill guided Northern Ireland to their first major finals for 30 years by qualifying for Euro 2016 and believes there is an example from that campaign for young players in the current squad to learn from.
“I think [full-back] Conor McLaughlin had two or three caps before he came in and played regularly for us in the qualification for Euro 2016, and more than held his own right throughout the campaign.
“The difficulty maybe is if you are in a situation where you have too many younger players in at the one time. For example, we finished the game against Finland with three 19-year-olds on the pitch. We have seven Under-21 players in this squad.”
New Under-21 boss set to be named
That Under-21 squad is still without a manager, with no replacement having been appointed since John Schofield said he was disappointed to be stepping down from the role in February.
The Under-19 and Under-17 teams are also without a manager after Gerard Lyttle’s departure this week, to take up an assistant manager’s role at Irish Premiership club Cliftonville.
O’Neill, who himself led an Under-21 training camp last month, said Irish FA technical director Aaron Hughes, one of O’Neill’s first-team coaches, will announce a new Under-21 boss after these Euro 2024 qualifiers.
“We have had a lot of discussions with various people. It is something that I have had an input with but it is Aaron as technical director who has been driving that,” he explained.
“We hope to make an appointment once we have the games out of the way and then that gives the manager the summer to prepare for the Under-21 campaign which starts in September.”