NI's Jonny Evans looking forward to facing "massive" influence Roy Keane
IT’S never going to be billed as ‘the friendly derby’ but the rivalry between the Republic and Northern Ireland doesn’t extend to certain players and management.
Indeed, Jonny Evans hailed the "massive" influence on his career of Martin O’Neill’s assistant manager Roy Keane – and revealed that he even shared a taxi to the airport with opposition star Robbie Brady.
Keane’s focus on the attitude of certain Ireland players has been well discussed recently and Evans admitted that he still sometimes feels as if he’s under the Corkman’s steely gaze.
“He was the player I looked up to most when I was growing up as a [Manchester] United fan. He was the United captain and then I went on to play for him at Sunderland in two loan spells.
"He was a big inspiration for me and I still think of him a lot when I am on the pitch. I think 'Well, if Roy Keane was in this situation and things were tough then he'd roll his sleeves up and continue fighting'.
"Sometimes maybe I think 'Is he still watching me?' - he's still got that hold on me!"
Evans went to Sunderland as a teenager in January 2007 and recalls: "It was my first time playing competitive league football in England. When you are a young player and making your way up you always wonder whether you can make that next step up.
"And it was the next progression for me at that time. I was grateful that he [Keane] had given me that opportunity to go to Sunderland as I had been on loan at Antwerp.
"I thought that I was going to be there [Antwerp] for the season but then word went around that Sunderland were interested and he was the manager.
"It was a no-brainer and I could not wait to get up there. It was a great experience."
Now 30, Evans admits he expected Keane to have a long managerial career after he led the Mackems to the Championship title and promotion to the top flight in 2007:
"I think so and after his spell with Ipswich he's back in with the Republic of Ireland. He's had a great career in coaching so far.
"He's been with the Republic now five years and that's a long spell to be involved in coaching. It's good to see that someone with his experience in the game is able to pass on his wisdom."
While Evans, now with Leicester City, has an understandably high regard for Keane, he also has good relations with a few players who may be in opposition at the Aviva on Thursday night.
“There were a few of us travelling over on the same flight. We were all on the Manchester [to Dublin] flight, so everyone is looking forward to it.
“Robbie Brady, [David] Meyler, Kevin Long, [Cyrus] Christie and a few of our boys.
“I actually picked Robbie Brady up in a taxi on the way to the airport, so the cross-community has started already!
“We didn’t even talk about the match, but obviously when we all separated we said ‘See you on Thursday, lads’.
Evans is clearly an optimist as he said he is expecting ‘a good game’ between the two Irish teams:
“This is a game that was announced over a year ago maybe, so it’s one we’re looking forward to. I think players from both teams will be…
“You never know how these games are going to work out. I think it’ll be a competitive game between two teams probably with similar styles and players maybe playing at similar levels. I think it’s going to be a competitive fixture and a good game to watch.”
That may be pushing things, with Evans admitting that he didn’t remember previous meetings, apart from the slightly strange encounter at this venue in June 2015:
“Obviously we had the game behind closed doors and even though there were no fans there, there were still a few challenges going in,” he said with a laugh “but they were made in the right way. It was aggressive and competitive in the right way."
Perhaps Keano wasn’t such an influence after all then…
On a serious note, Evans has had a tough time as a Foxes player after the tragic death in a helicopter crash of club chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha – but the reaction has been positive.
“We had the game coming up against Southampton and it was obviously postponed, but straight away the lads wanted to go out and play and show their support for the club and the chairman and his family.
“Once you get on the pitch and when we finally did play against Cardiff, there was a lot of emotion in that game.
“I came on after about 25 or 30 minutes and I could sense it on the pitch and everyone wanted to make sure that we won the game and put in a good performance and represented the chairman and his family in the right way…
“The club have handled it in a tremendous way and the players too. It’s been great to be part of a club that has really come together at a time like this.
“It was really good to see and it’s been a difficult couple of weeks, but the club has done really well”.