Evans predicts brighter future

Jonny Evans believes Northern Ireland are heading in the right direction under Michael O'Neill.

Last Updated: 08/09/13 at 18:05 Post Comment

Jonny Evans: Confident for the future

Jonny Evans: Confident for the future

Jonny Evans believes Northern Ireland are heading in the right direction under Michael O'Neill and is hopeful of an improved showing in Euro 2016 qualifying.

The Manchester United defender has become an increasingly influential figure at international level during O'Neill's first campaign, relishing the chance to establish himself at centre-half after filling in at left-back for much of his early career.

And his enthusiasm for the Northern Irish cause is stronger than ever.

The side may have won just one of their seven matches in World Cup qualifying, a shock success over Fabio Capello's Russia, but the mood around the team has been positive under O'Neill and two strong showings against Portugal - a 1-1 draw in Porto and Friday night's unfortunate 4-2 defeat - offered further optimism.

Hopes of a place at Rio next summer may have gone but Evans raised the prospect of a real challenge for the European Championships in France, when the number of participating teams increases from 16 to 24.

"The extra teams are qualifying in the next campaign and that gives us a big incentive," Evans said.

"We need to go back to this campaign, finish as strong as we can and put points on the board. That might have an effect on the seedings and the draw for the next qualifying campaign.

"We're in a good place as a squad. It feels like we have things worked out a bit and if we can continue in that fashion there is that wee bit of hope.

"There is a good spirit among the squad. You hear people saying 'we enjoy it' but we actually are enjoying it. It's a good atmosphere."

Evans, speaking with new authority as one of the squad's senior men, identifies two key reasons for the increasing feelgood factor that is developing around the side.

First is O'Neill's tendency to deploy players in their preferred positions - a simple call, perhaps, but one his predecessor Nigel Worthington often felt unable to make due to limited options.

Secondly, but on a related note, is the emergence of a new group of players.

Shane Ferguson, Niall McGinn, Jamie Ward and Martin Paterson were all capped under Worthington but were largely peripheral figures, whereas O'Neill has sought to use them as first-team regulars, with promising results.

"One thing I've noticed is that maybe in past people played out of position," said Evans.

"I played at left-back for a number of years and I was doing a job for the team but it was never a position I was comfortable in.

"If you look now at the likes of Niall, Fergie, Wardy it's better.

"Wardy has had to wait for his turn and is only now playing regularly and that's what we need. It's great to have Shane on the left and Niall on the right, they really give us pace.

"And we have competition at left-back, right-back, centre-back - where we are very strong - it's a big factor to have that competition."

Having competed well against more illustrious opponents in the their last two matches, Tuesday night represents a different type of challenge.

Although they are away from home, Northern Ireland will be expected to see Luxembourg off at the Stade Josy Barthel - the kind of task they have struggled with in recent years.

Indeed, the reverse fixture ended in a 1-1 draw thanks to a late Luxembourg equaliser.

"It won't be bigger in terms of publicity as Portugal - beating them at home would have people talking about great nights at Windsor Park - but these are the games we haven't done as well in, against teams at the same level as us or below," he said.

"The onus is on ourselves, you get a lot more time on the ball.

"There is that pressure if we don't produce or if we don't score early, but if we stick to what we did well against Portugal, no matter what the opponent, I think we'll be fine."


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