INTERNATIONAL FOOTBALL: Jonny Evans highlights Northern Ireland spirit

Northern Ireland's Jonny Evans playing against Croatia
Northern Ireland's Jonny Evans playing against Croatia

If ever the spirit of this Northern Ireland team could be summed up, it was by Jonny Evans’ performance on Tuesday night.

A central defender in a 3-0 defeat, it seems strange to single him out for praise.

But his performance was brighter than the scoreline suggests and even more impressive with the knowledge that his wife had a baby girl just last Monday.

“He was unbelievable,” said Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill. “He only came in for the game this morning. His wife had a baby, he went home for a few days. I gave him the option to miss the game and he came in to play. I think that says everything about Jonny Evans in terms of his attitude.”

O’Neill had the opportunity to use some of the squad’s fringe players in the friendly against Croatia. Rochdale midfielder Matthew Lund was handed a first cap while Lee Hodson, Patrick McNair, Alan Mannus and Niall McGinn were all brought into the starting line-up.

Liam Boyce was handed his eighth cap named in O’Neill’s XI and the 25-year-old Ross County man was the one who caught the manager’s eye.

“I was delighted with Liam,” said the boss. “I thought he did very well. It was another 90 minutes of (Paddy) McNair as well which was good. (Lee) Hodson was good. We’re asking him to play right-back then he has to play left-back. That’s the type of thing we need. We don’t have like-for-like replacements for players all over the pitch.

“Having that option and seeing players do that and deal with it is important for us going forward.

“It’s very difficult for me to go to Rochdale and watch Matty Lund against Oldham and say he’s good enough for international football or Liam Boyce playing for Ross County. It’s not until you bring them in, that you see whether they can handle it.

“It wasn’t so long ago that Josh Magennis was in that boat and look at him now.

“On an individual basis, there were a lot of plus points.”

Overall, it was a game that had all the hallmarks of an international friendly - lacking something of the intensity of Friday evening’s all-important 4-0 World Cup qualifying win over Azerbaijan.

“After the game on Friday night, we had a lot of bumps and bruises,” continued O’Neill. “From our original squad that we picked, we had something like eight players available to us.

“Against this level of opposition, it was a case of just trying to get through the game.

“I thought at times we played quite well. Some of our football was decent but we lost goals at poor times.

“The third goal was great, I was disappointed with the second goal, a set-piece.

“We’re playing against quality even though they’re not household names. I think some of those players will become household names. They’re young players who are on the wanted list or are already at top clubs in Europe.

“Croatia are bringing in young players who are playing at Napoli and Inter Milan. We’re bringing in players who, with all due respect, are playing at Shrewbury and League One clubs. We have to be realistic when we ask them to play international football.

“It was just disappointing to lose the game, although 3-0 is a bit severe on us I think.”