One of the more unfashionable names at Manchester United, defender Jonny Evans has shown a marked improvement for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side this season.
Nemanja Vidic’s season-ending injury, picked up against Basel in the Champions League, opened up a spot at the heart of the defence that many would have expected either Phil Jones or Chris Smalling to fill.
But, with injuries at full-back and in midfield, Smalling has been utilised on occasion at the right back position, whilst Jones has also filled in on that side, as well as in a defensive midfield role.
And, whilst players in other positions have returned to fitness, it’s to Evans’ credit that he has managed to retain his place at centre half – predominantly alongside veteran Rio Ferdinand.
But Evans’ rise to prominence has been a fairly rocky road, with critics both in and out the club constantly scrutinising his progress at Old Trafford.
A product of the club’s famed academy, Evans became a senior professional in 2006, and was instantly loaned out to Royal Antwerp as a teenager in an effort to gain first team experience.
He returned to his parent club in December of that year, and joined Sunderland for the remainder of the season as they went on to win the Championship under former midfield legend Roy Keane.
After a couple of cup games at the start of the 2007/08 campaign for United, Evans again joined the Black Cats for half a season, and this time around helped the club retain its Premier League status as the Northern Irish international enjoyed a first taste of top flight football in England.
He returned to fight for a first team place with United the following season, but opportunities were limited with Vidic and Ferdinand the first-choice pair, as well as John O’Shea and Wes Brown looking for senior chances. Evans would make 17 league appearances, and 32 outings in all major domestic competitions.
Over the next two seasons, Evans’ appearance numbers went down further, totaling just 28 games and then 21 in all competitions. His performance in the Carling Cup defeat to West Ham last season was a particular concern, and the expectation was that Evans might be moved on.
However, the sales of Brown and O’Shea this summer, coupled with injuries to others in the squad, has brought Evans to the fore, and manager Ferguson believes his performances will have silenced some of the critics.
"When I think back to the time when so many critics were ready for me to move Jonny on, I hope that they're questioning their judgement, because the boy has been in sure form lately and was, in fact, many people's choice as man of the match in the game against Spurs," Ferguson wrote in United Review.
"He's been tremendous. Jonny's one of the best in our defence at coming out with the ball. He's a terrific user of the ball and he's quick. I've been pleased with him," the Scot concluded in Inside United.
The stats certainly back-up Ferguson’s comments, with United losing just one league game that Evans has featured in this season – the 6-1 derby loss to Manchester City at Old Trafford.
And, such positive results show that the 24-year-old’s consistency levels have certainly improved this season, culminating in a string of fine performances in the last two-and-a-half months. Evans has started 11 of the last 12 matches, with the Red Devils winning seven of the eight league games in that period.
It’s certainly been a miraculous turnaround for Evans, who incredibly could have another decade of first team football ahead of him if he can remain fit.
It’s unsurprising then, that Ferguson has been so quick to defend his player in the past and his happy to rub it in the face of those who jumped the gun when questioning the defender’s ability.
As usual, Ferguson has had the last laugh, and Evans will be hoping to make his case for a regular place in the Manchester United for next season – and beyond.
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