There is something to admire in Jonny Evans, the 23-year-old defender who has, while not proving doubters wrong, come back from the brink of Old Trafford irrelevancy to claim a place in Sir Alex Ferguson’s side this season. The Manchester United defender admitted this week that he allowed an element of complacency to invade his game last season. It is a claim that will draw raised eyebrows, but only for the brutal honesty and not its factual accuracy. Indeed, so poor was the Northern Irishman’s 2010/11 campaign that the defender should count himself lucky to still be at the club.
The concern with Evans’ performances last season was not simply the markedly lower level of performance but the repeated occasions in which the Belfast-born defender was physically and mentally outwitted by opponents. Evans had, it seemed, moved forward after a two successful loan periods with Sunderland, only to take two steps back last season.
Yet, the defender’s problems were not, it seems, a lack of talent but a failure of application if the player himself is to be believed.
“Maybe I took my eye off the ball a little bit,” admitted the defender, who has started seven matches this season.
“Maybe I relaxed a bit too much and thought it was going to come as easily as the previous two seasons. If you looked over the years, a lot of youngsters have come into the team and had a good season or two, then take a little dip.
“Sometimes you do think you are immune from it. All of a sudden it hits you. You have to regroup and have a word with yourself. I have enough people around me who are happy to bring me down to earth. My family and friends do that. I have friends who would say: ‘You didn’t play too well today’. I might have thought they were being cheeky at the time but they are right. They will tell you. Sometimes you have to take on board what the people closest to you say. You have to be honest with yourself as well.”
If the penny has dropped then it has come not a moment too soon for the player, with the competition for places in United’s central defence stronger than ever.
Evans has not proven bullet-proof this season, with the player’s performance in United’s 3-1 victory over Chelsea, for example, worryingly lax. But the defender’s level has risen sharply enough that the Northern Irishman is now seemingly first alternate should either – or both – of Rio Ferdinand and captain Nemanja Vidic not be available to Sir Alex.
Not unsurprisingly, the patience shown by his manager and frequent berth in Ferguson’s starting team this season has increased Evans’ confidence, despite the two-from-five competition for places in central defence.
“I feel more assured now,” Evans told the Manchester Evening News this week.
“When you go through a stage of not playing well, there is a bit of pressure on you and you can feel sometimes the crowd are maybe getting on your back – you think: ‘Stuff it, what have I got to lose?’ You go out there, relax, play your football and go home. A lot of players coming to United can struggle. I have never been one to shirk a challenge. Whenever things are tough, I always feel as though I can respond and not hide away.”
Not that Evans place is assured. If anything the central defender’s poor form last season simply rubber stamped Ferguson’s early decision to invest heavily in Blackburn Rovers’ defender Phil Jones in the summer. In fact, Chris Smalling’s continued progression and Jones’ headline-grabbing talent continues to remind fans, and one hopes Evans, of the intense competition.
Should Evans, who turns 24 in January, fail to progress this season others surely will in his stead. Indeed, that Evans is yet to complete a 20-game Premier League season says much for the player’s bit-part status at Old Trafford. It will take more than half-a-dozen solid performances to transform the Irishman from squad to automatic pick.
Yet, while competition remains hot, Evans will continue to compete with Smalling and Jones to deputise for the increasingly infirm Ferdinand and Vidic. The latter pair may remain of the very highest quality but neither has spent enough time on the pitch this season. Ferdinand, in particular, is now vulnerable to the challenge from his younger colleagues.
Yet, for all Evans growing confidence and better performances his apparent lack of flexibility may count against him. Note than both Jones and Smalling have each been deployed in more than one position this season.
With that in mind Evans must learn a tough lesson from the past year. Any evidence of further complacency will surely be rigorously punished by Sir Alex. It is a lesson that Evans cannot afford to learn twice.