Northern Ireland still aiming to qualify, insists Jonny Evans
DEFEAT can change a team’s approach but Jonny Evans insists that Northern Ireland’s response to their 2-0 home loss to Germany isn’t wholly negative.
Michael O’Neill’s men went at the Germans more than they might have had the visitors not lost to the Netherlands the previous Friday night.
Now Northern Ireland must somehow take points from two games against the Dutch before Group C concludes with a trip to Germany.
That’s an extremely daunting prospect but Evans is adamant that qualification isn’t beyond them.
“We know it is going to be difficult. The result the other night [when Holland won 4-2 in Germany] changed our approach. We were all sat round watching it and knew this was a big moment.
“We still have things to play for and we will approach the other games with belief like we have done over the years. The manager will have us well-organised and well-prepared going into those games with everything to play for still.”
Northern Ireland teams of the past would not even have contemplated qualifying from a group including Germany and the Netherlands, but Evans says there’s a steelier mind-set under O’Neill:
“I think our mentality here has changed. The manager has come in after the game and we were all really, really disappointed and we all felt it was a missed opportunity.
“Going into the game you never know how it is going to pan out. We wanted to have no regrets with how we played, we wanted to play on the front foot and really take the game to them and I thought we did that.
“It’s not always easy to do that against a Germany side. I think you could tell from our first half performance and the way we played.”
The 31-year-old suggested there was a tournament feel in the lead-up to the game, a buzz among supporters and in the camp:
“It was one of the best atmospheres I’ve played in at Windsor Park. In the build-up to the game I was getting text messages and I haven’t had that since we were at the Euros. It felt like such a momentous night…
“I think in the past we were hanging on in certain stages of the games but I think the result between Holland and Germany changed our mentality. Ideally Germany beating Holland would have put us in a position to approach the game a different way.
“We felt at home - and it’s not easy to say - that this was a good chance to beat the Germans with them coming off a bad defeat to Holland and the fact you can see a lot of their players have changed over the last couple of years and they have a new team gelling together.
“But at the end of the day they still have quality players that can be brought in and you could see the quality they have out there.
“On one side we could be proud how we played but we can also learn things from the game. Northern Ireland fans watching the game, we can all learn how good the Germans are and take things from that.
“We have played Germany four times now [over the last four years] and not got a result. We know the quality they have and the way they can control a game is on another level really.”
Yet the hosts were the better side before half-time and should have scored at least once through striker Conor Washington, which surely made the eventual loss even harder to take.
“It was tough because of the energy we put into it,” acknowledged Evans. “You come off the pitch and when you are tired you are emotional about it.
“We are disappointed we didn't get a goal and have something to hold on to. But I think we can be proud, especially in our first half performance.
“When you put that energy and desire we showed in the first half it is hard to sustain that for the whole game and maybe that showed with our legs and ability to keep the ball in the second half.
“We came back into it 10 minutes after they scored which shows the character of the lads. We tried to do everything we could to keep the game alive.”
The even tougher task now is to keep qualification alive, even after winning their first four matches in the group, but Evans argues those results shouldn’t be forgotten because of losing to Germany:
“I think it goes beyond how we played [against Germany]. It's also about the four games we played previously to put ourselves in this position.
“Having 12 points and being top of the group if we didn't win [against Germany] it was always going to feel like a missed opportunity. But like I said I think we can be proud of how we played and there are things we can learn from it”.
Next up is a trip to Rotterdam in October, a prospect that the Leicester City defender is relishing: “I’ve not played Holland on the international stage. As a kid growing up you always admired them as a nation, the players that they’ve had and everything about the orange kit, so I’m looking forward to it. I’m sure it’s one the fans are looking forward to as well”.