Jonny Evans made his 200th Manchester United appearance at the weekend with a man-of-the-match performance against Burnley. It was his first start for the club since 2015.
The Northern Ireland international rejoined United this summer on a one-year contract after being released by Leicester City following their relegation from the Premier League.
The 35-year-old has been signed primarily to provide cover for United's first-choice centre-backs, but his performance at Turf Moor shows he still has plenty to offer.
Andy Mitten fills in the gaps of Evans' eight-year odyssey back to Old Trafford.
July 2015, San Jose, California
Manchester United’s players walk from the training pitch at the start of their United States pre-season tour, with the most attention on new signing Bastian Schweinsteiger. Less is paid to defender Jonny Evans who explains to this journalist that while he’s up for doing an interview, it’s a little tricky. The man two appearances short of 200 Manchester United games, who has supported the club all his life and came through the academy with flying colours on more than one level, no longer features in the plans of manager Louis van Gaal. It’s not a good time to talk.
Van Gaal’s DNA purge on England’s most successful club felt questionable at the time and the decision to let proven winners leave on free transfers didn’t age well. It’s curious because although Van Gaal had let popular players depart because he didn't think they had the technical level required to play for United, he considers Evans one who does.
Evans, who won nine major trophies at United, moves to West Bromwich Albion a month later, joining former United teammates Darren Fletcher and Ben Foster.
That last season at United had been tough for the defender. A pass back to David de Gea was jeered by United fans who sang: "Attack! Attack! Attack!" It stung.
“There is nothing worse for a footballer than being booed or jeered by your own fans and I say that from experience,” said former United defender David May. “It hammers your confidence and I don't like to see the confidence of Jonny, an excellent player, being harmed.
“Jonny is comfortable on both sides, he uses both feet. I’ve never seen him get done for speed. He has all the attributes of being a top, top player. He was outstanding alongside [Nemanja] Vidic and [Rio] Ferdinand. He’s dead clever too.”
Evans went on to win West Brom’s player of the year and was later made club captain.
A young face looks away from the game in wonderment towards the majority of the 15,000 Northern Ireland fans during their opening Euro 16 game against Poland in Nice. Across three tiers, they're singing what was known in English football as the "Kolo-Yaya Toure song". The fans in green have adapted it to Jonny and Corry Evans, two brothers from Belfast in Northern Ireland’s squad. Both left for Manchester United and a life in England with their family at an early age, both made it as professional footballers at big clubs, Jonny winning league titles with United.
"Jonn-y, Jonn-y, Jonn-y" they holler with their arms in the air, followed by "Corr-y, Corr-y, Corr-y" with their arms down low.
And now their younger sister Katie is enthralled by the sight of thousands of green shirted supporters singing about her big brothers. It’s a magical moment, watching her jaw drop then a smile envelop her face.
Either side of Katie sit her parents, Jackie and Dawn. They’re watching a man known in football as Jonny. To them, it’s always Jonathan and Jonathan is representing his country as they play in a major tournament for the first time since 1986. Evans keeps Robert Lewandowski, one of the best strikers in the world, quiet. He plays in all four games before Northern Ireland are eliminated by Wales in the last 16.
Jonny Evans has only been back to Old Trafford twice and only focussed on the game. But he also went back to do a job for United when the stadium was empty. He stood there alone and took it all in.
“You forget how amazing the place is,” he said. “That was the moment it hit me that I had been lucky to play a lot of matches there.”
He’s happy at West Brom, but his mind wanders to what it would be like playing in Spain or elsewhere. And it’s a sharp mind.
“Jonny Evans was a genius,” said his former PE teacher at Ashton on Mersey school where the United youngsters mix with non-footballing students. “He got all As in his GCSE exams, including four A*s.” That made him the top performing student in the whole school.
“He came here with his brother Corry and their father asked how he’d do,” said Tarun Kapur CBE and chief executive head of the Dean Trust, whose schools include Ashton on Mersey, which young Manchester United footballers including Marcus Rashford have attended. “They’d been at a good school in Belfast. I said they would do great because they were joining an outstanding school. Jonny was studious, he treated people as he’d like to be treated and that’s how it should be.”
There’s another side to him, one who’d sing Sweet Caroline on karaoke in the voice of fellow Belfast man Van Morrison. Or, in a club quiz, was asked: “What word becomes shorter when you add two letters to it?”
“Short,” replied Evans.
West Brom and Leicester 2015-2023
Arsene Wenger twice tries to sign Evans for Arsenal. West Brom twice price him out of a move. He had an even bigger admirer, Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.
Evans moves to Leicester City in 2018 and plays five seasons of Premier League football there and 152 games. When he comes up against his old teammate Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese can’t stop smiling at the man marking him.
Champions in 2016, Leicester are relegated in 2023 and Evens is gutted. He loved it there and felt a little complicit in the Foxes being relegated because of his injury that limited him to only 14 games last season.
In the year he made his 100th appearance for Northern Ireland, Jonny Evans is without a club. His career has been a successful one and he’s now 35. He has no concrete offers to join another club, just a few enquiries. He wants to continue playing at club level and for Northern Ireland but with all his age and injuries last season, there are no suitors.
With players returning for pre-season, Evans goes into training at his local club, Manchester United. It makes sense. He was highly regarded. He hadn’t cost the club a penny; he understands Manchester, understands United – but he’s only there to get fit and be ready in case an offer comes in.
Erik ten Hag sees value in having him around as cover. The coaching staff like the person, too. A one-month contract is offered and Evans travels on the pre-season tour. Money is not even a consideration. He’d have earned more being a steward at Old Trafford.
Evans’ status increases and he’s offered a one-year contract. Few expect him to play many games, though he plays pre-season matches against Lyon in Edinburgh and Wrexham in San Diego. He’s played 495 competitive professional games as the season starts. How many more will there be?
Injuries to Lisandro Martinez, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw mean Evans is selected to start his 200th United game at Burnley away. He’s told he’s playing the day before and felt no nerves as he’d felt pre-season, only excitement. He feels good, he feels ready.
It goes well. Evans celebrates a goal, but VAR cuts it short. Then, Evans lifts a ball over the Burnley defence which goes into the path of Bruno Fernandes, who volleys home for United’s best game of the season. No wonder he is named man of the match.
“That was great,” he says after. “That was my 200th game for Manchester United, I never thought I would ever reach that figure – it was one of the best nights of my life.”
On Tuesday night, Evans played for United at Old Trafford for the first time since 2015. As the Stretford End sang his name, he moved forward and headed a cross towards goal. It was saved, but this has been a good week for Jonathan Evans.
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