Football/Soccer

Jonny Evans hoping 'unbelievable' Michael O'Neill remains NI boss

Northern Ireland's Jonny Evans shows his disappointment after the final whistle in Basel 

UNBELIEVABLE. Shame. Difficult job. Jonny Evans might have been talking about the refereeing decision that ultimately sent Switzerland to the World Cup. Or his later header being cleared off the line, which did likewise.

Instead he was ruminating on the future of Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill.

Obviously the players want the boss to stay on, but Evans accepts that O'Neill will be in demand, perhaps by Scotland or a club side:

"As a manager, he's unbelievable, we all love him and every single player plays for him. He's such a good manager and it would be a shame to lose him.

"But we know on the other side, management is such a difficult job and if something came up, where it would be difficult to turn down, no one would ever begrudge him that."

Northern Ireland have blossomed under O'Neill's tutelage, reaching the Euros last year and coming close to getting to Russia 2018.

Evans revealed how Michael boosted the players as soon as they arrived in Basel for the second leg:

"He's so inspirational, he's very tactical. Even the other night, we had just got off the plane and were on the bus on the way to the hotel.

"He had watched the first half of the [first leg] game and he came down the bus and said, 'We're calling a meeting tonight and we're gonna watch it because you didn't play that bad, there are so many basic things you can improve on'.

"It gave everyone a lift straightaway. He's got such composure and his team talks, he says the right things to get the lads going. You can see everyone plays for him and we all really, really respect him."

NI suffered the embarrassment of a defeat by Luxembourg under O'Neill but the overall improvement during his six years in charge has been incredible:

"We've spoken about when he first came in and it was difficult, but look at things now. He's got a real good group of lads there and he's created an atmosphere where all the players are thriving.

"Sometimes players get too much credit for that and he's created that atmosphere and willingness to work for each other."

Evans had to do some motivational work himself, lifting the spirits of his younger brother Corry, who was harshly penalised for the Swiss spot-kick that decided this play-off – and booked so that he missed the second leg through suspension as a consequence.

"He was devastated," admitted his older brother. "For a day or two, it was difficult to get a word out of him.

"Then [from Saturday], you could see him perking up a bit. He was walking round the room trying to gee me up. Usually he's the one trying to go to sleep and I'm the one trying to wake him up.

"I don't think it was ever a question for him to go home. It's such a big occasion and it's not like any other international break because there was such a big prize at the end of it. He wanted to be here and be part of it and all the lads wanted him [in Basel] as well."

The elder Evans might even have kept the dream of the big prize alive, but his last-gasp header was cleared away by first leg goalscorer Ricardo Rodriguez, although the NI centre half didn't have his hopes raised for long:

"Once I got the header in, I realised the guy cleared it off the line. I don't think it was close to being over or anything like that."

Still, the fact that the visitors were in contention to the very end restored some pride after an underwhelming first leg performance:

"Yeah, I think so. I don't think we ever lost any pride, but we took ourselves to another level and showed what we are all about. I'm sure the fans are all happy.

"Even neutrals watching could see we're a team that really plays for each other and we played that game with a lot of pride for our country."

The luck of the draw went against Northern Ireland, Evans suggested: "I think we got into some really good positions. We really took the game to them and showed them. We played most of the game in their half. It's difficult to do that.

"We tried to take the positives out of the first leg of the tie being at home, but I think everyone would admit, you always want to play at home second. If this [second leg] game had been at Windsor Park, it might have been different. But we did ourselves proud."

In the end, though, a dodgy penalty made the difference, adding to the feeling of devastation for the NI camp, but Evans said they tried to put that to one side:

"Yeah, it is hard to take but we've all been around football a long time to realise there are decisions which go against you. As a team, the most important thing was to try and rise above that.

"Looking back, there will be that disappointment that the goal has come from a refereeing decision. We tried to put that aside and play a really, really good game. I think everyone watching it will have enjoyed it and hopefully we have done everyone proud."

As for using VAR (video assistant referees), the West Brom captain isn't sure, but feels they may be worth a try:

"I don't know. We had a Premier League meeting this year and went through certain things and even after coming out of the meeting, we were a bit like 'How many decisions could be contested?' Then you might get a decision and is it down to the referee if he goes and reviews it?

"The goal-line technology has come in and changed the game for the better. I'm sure they will have to do more research on it and analyse things.

"Football is a fantastic sport. It's an amazing sport and we're all privileged to play it at such a high level. Sometimes it is always good to improve, to advance things and make them better".

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