Jonny Evans: Leicester graded me for games just like at school. I was impressed
When Jonny Evans saw a C-minus in with the A-pluses in Leicester’s scouting dossier he knew he had to say yes
Jonathan Northcroft, Football correspondent
December 8 2019, 12:01am, The Sunday Times
Jonny Evans, riding high with Leicester, was in his car when his wife gave birth beside himTOM MADDICK/SWNS
Timing is one of Jonny Evans’s great assets and maybe his new son has inherited the knack. How’s this for an arrival? At 5pm last Tuesday, Evans returned from training and his wife Helen’s contractions started. At 6.20pm they reached Wythenshawe Hospital. By 6.21pm baby Eli was born — in the front seat of their car.
Eli was due to arrive this weekend and perhaps it is best Evans tells the rest of the story. “With both our daughters, Helen went into labour on her due date so I was very confident the same would happen again. But last Tuesday I got a call. I’d just got home from training and Helen was at gymnastics with the girls. She said she felt she was going into labour.
“We’d planned a different hospital but Wythenshawe was closer. I didn’t really know where I was going. We left the house at six, I remember thinking, ‘This is coming soon’ because suddenly [from Helen in the passenger seat] it was a different sort of screaming. As we pulled up she said, ‘Jonny, my waters have broken.’
“I was trying to get her in a hospital chair and she said, ‘I can’t’ and 10 seconds later the baby was born. Fair play, Helen was amazing.”
Evans did not have to deliver Eli himself because an off-duty midwife, a friend, tailed them in her car and raced out to assist on reaching hospital. They stopped right outside A&E, “Where there was some guy having a smoke and trying to inform us our car was in the wrong place. As I’d got out to get the chair, the midwife’s run over and gone, ‘Let’s get you back in the car’, and Helen’s like, ‘I need to push.’ The head was completely out. One push. She only had to push once. The baby cried as soon as he came out and the midwife put him on Helen’s chest. And all the time this guy — he sounded like he was from Wythenshawe estate — is saying, ‘You can’t park there mate.’ ”
It is 9am at Leicester’s training ground and for someone who is not only the parent of a newborn but who rose at 6am to commute here from Cheshire, Evans is remarkably bright-eyed and fresh. Success is a tonic. Approaching 32, he is enjoying something last experienced at Manchester United in his mid-twenties: contending in the title race.
Leicester City’s club-record run of seven straight league victories is underpinned by a defence that has secured as many clean sheets as Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, United and Arsenal combined. Watch them closely: while Caglar Soyuncu draws the attention, the one who leads and shepherds the unit is this understated Ulsterman. For both parties, Evans’s move to Leicester from West Bromwich Albion has been everything hoped for, and more.
It was agreed in June 2018 for a larcenous £3.5m. Leicester’s director of football, Jon Rudkin, travelled to Alderley Edge to make a memorable pitch in the office of Evans’s agent, Colin Murdock, over coffee and packs of Waitrose sandwiches. Rudkin produced a giant ring- binder folder crammed with detailed reports on Evans’s performances.
“It was a big dossier with every game I’d played over three or four seasons, and he had them all graded,” Evans recalls. “There was a C-minus in there — like school marks. Luckily the rest were positive, A and A-plus. But I saw this one game with a C-minus and remember looking at it, thinking, ‘Yeah, Watford away, I had a bad day.’ So that actually helped — they were seeing the games the way I did. That, and the fact they’d been tracking me for so long and that someone had been tasked with watching me so closely. I came out with the thought, ‘This is somewhere I really want to go.’ ”
That sense of a club with high standards was confirmed as soon as training began. Evans was blown away by the levels of the young players. Established players “who I expected to be good were even better than I thought”. A journalist asked him recently if Leicester have the best culture he has experienced and he chuckles about that. But in reply he says “in certain aspects, like unity in the squad” the environment resembles the one in which he grew up at Sir Alex Ferguson’s United.
“Footballers, we’re like fans. You’re always engrossed in your own club and live in that bubble. Looking at Leicester winning the title [in 2015-16] from the outside you think, ‘Was that an absolute fluke?’ But after I arrived, it didn’t surprise me any more.”
He had to fight for a starting place and this sparked valuable changes in diet and habits. Ahead of him were Wes Morgan and Harry Maguire — “two absolute units, I thought I need to get into the gym”. He began a regime of weight training and took on more calories, eating at times that supported his exercise — empowered by Leicester’s brilliant sports science team, who encourage players to devise personal programmes.
Evans says he will always be “a skinny lad” but he has never felt stronger nor been so injury-free. His prime quality, reading of the play, gets even better with age and he has an inquiring and analytical mind that he applies to his own game, an example being when he noted himself regularly in the top four or five in Leicester’s running stats, something unusual for a centre back. Rather than congratulating himself he asked, “Is this a good thing?” He examined everything from his starting points in relation to the ball, to how often he was pushing up to squeeze play, to see if any of his running was unnecessary. Not that it appears to be: Evans is a middle-distance runner of a footballer whose ability to anticipate opponents’ moves and cover ground allows him to defend big spaces despite lacking a sprinter’s pace. Maguire became an £80m defender playing beside him and Soyuncu is going the same way.
Evans’s playing mentors were Nemanja Vidic — “the ultimate competitor” — and Rio Ferdinand, whose calmness soothed players around him and from whom he learnt “your body language on the pitch is massive”. Ferguson was the shaping influence, his endless striving for the maximum, which was witnessed in an infamous “hairdryer” moment for Evans away to AC Milan.
“He’d actually fallen out with me, Fergie. I was doing a bit of negotiating on my contract — I didn’t have an agent at that stage — and negotiations had gone a bit wrong. So for a couple of weeks he hadn’t actually spoken to me,” Evans recalls. “I tried to play a ball up to Wayne Rooney and a Milan midfielder cut it out. Ronaldinho had a chance. We scored straight after that but Fergie came over and he was, ‘F***ing wake up.’ At half-time he came for me again, asking had I not learnt to kick the ball off the ground when I was at school. Going through my head was ‘I went to a rugby school’ but I didn’t say it out loud.”
What did Evans learn? “Get an agent.”
Ferguson “had this amazing ability to always keep you on your toes. You never felt loved by him even when everyone perceived it differently. The foreign lads, Anderson and Nani, said ‘Fergie is Jonny’s dad’ and I was shocked. I thought he was always on at me.”
Evans loves detailed coaching. Unlike others he enjoyed playing under Louis van Gaal. He enthuses about the structure Brendan Rodgers puts into Leicester’s build-up play and pressing. So, too, Rodgers’s half-time team-talks. “The best managers say the right things at the right times and he does that,” he says. “His talks are short. He’ll come in and give his message sometimes just as the bell’s going for us to go back out. I’ve never experienced that.”
What can Leicester achieve? “The target was Europe. If we achieve that, and even more so the Champions League, anything after is a bonus.”
And Evans’s role? One of the first things he noticed was how relaxed the young players were. “My first impression was, ‘Are the boys taking it seriously?’ But then you realise there’s a big strength to it, because they’re playing with no fear. I know with experience how quickly football can change and will remind the lads the second half of the season will be different, with teams fighting for their lives and no room for error.”
The nice thing, he says, is Leicester’s youngsters and senior players feel connected, epitomised by James Maddison and Kasper Schmeichel. “Kasper’s got this old-school way — he tries to ban bad haircuts — and Madders is turning up with his see-through multicoloured Louis Vuitton rucksack . . . There’s constant dialogue between them.”
Blown away by the Fergie hairdryer
This was the moment during Manchester United’s Champions League tie away to AC Milan in 2010 when Evans received one of his manager’s dressing-downs. United had just equalised on 36 minutes and Ferguson was held back by assistant Mike Phelan as he screamed at Evans to “f***ing wake up”. United won 3-2.
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