By Ian Parker, PA
Jonny Evans is determined to make the most of his unexpected return to the Northern Ireland squad for Friday’s friendly against Luxembourg.
The 34-year-old defender is ahead of schedule in his return from a hamstring injury and is due to start Friday’s match after coming off the bench for Leicester last weekend in his first appearance since December.
After he came through the Foxes’ 2-1 win over Brentford unscathed, Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers called Ian Baraclough to make Evans available for selection, with the Luxembourg match seen as an ideal opportunity to build-up his match fitness.
— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) March 24, 2022
The hamstring injury was the latest setback for a player who has been dealing with a long-term foot problem for much of the last 12 months, and Evans admitted the disruption had taught him to savour the opportunities he does get.
“A couple of weeks ago, we were getting close to the (Northern Ireland) squad being named and when it came up I was in the gym,” he said. “I saw it going along the yellow bar (on the television) and I was looking for my name just in hope.
“It wasn’t there – I saw Evans but obviously it was my brother (Corry) and I was gutted I wasn’t going to be there.
“Then a week later things change so quickly. It’s safe to say on the Friday and Saturday nights I was buzzing, I couldn’t wait for the Brentford game. I’d missed that. Sometimes you get those things that get you excited. It’s good to have that feeling back and you cherish it a bit more…
“I’m pleased with how everything has gone in the rehab and the last two training sessions with the Northern Ireland boys has been great for me and exactly what I needed.”
Evans’ return is a boon to Baraclough both on and off the pitch, with his experience vital in helping integrate another set of fresh faces into the squad, with Trai Hume, Paddy Lane and Caolan Boyd-Munce all called up from the under-21s for Friday’s match and Tuesday’s home friendly against Hungary.
With June’s Nations League quadruple-header looming, Baraclough wants to use these fixtures to recapture some of the momentum from encouraging performances in November – highlighted by the goalless draw against European champions Italy – but also blood more young players.
“It is key that the senior lads take the lead on it and welcome the young lads in,” Baraclough said.
“I think Northern Ireland has been a great platform for many young players’ careers. I think Jonny played for Northern Ireland before his club, and that can happen.
— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) March 22, 2022
“It is something they have to cherish and it can really give them a springboard for their careers.”
Evans got his first senior call in November 2006, making his debut in the famous 3-2 win over Spain.
He recalled rooming with “two absolute legends” in David Healy and Aaron Hughes in his early days, and credits both with helping him making a flying start to his international career.
“I remember after either my first or second training session, David Healy came up to me and said, ‘You’ll be starting the next game’.
“He made me feel welcome, and hopefully I can have that same impact with some of the young lads coming in now.”
Baraclough said his own message to the new boys was simple.
“I’ve spoken to them and said, ‘You’re here for a reason’,” he said. “They’ve been doing well at their clubs, doing well for the under-21s, don’t veer off from that, don’t do anything different.
“We’ll try to integrate them a bit more through the week but they’ve been great, they’ve taken to it really well. I put it to them, ‘Make sure you’re in the next camp’.
“That’s a challenge for them. Hopefully they prefer it here with us and want more of it.”