Fast learner Evans eyes up a bright future at Sunderland

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The Independent Football

The difference between playing for Manchester United and Sunderland this season could in part be described as the difference between victory and defeat. Yet if forced to choose, Jonny Evans would pick playing and losing for Sunderland over not playing and watching United win. It is an increasingly common dilemma for young players at Champions' League clubs with squads the size of a platoon.

"Coming to Sunderland and playing in the Premier League has been great for me," the central defender says. "In my second or third game here we played at Spurs and I was tortured a bit by Dimitar Berbatov. But I really enjoyed it.

"He is a top-class striker and even though he caused problems, I enjoyed the challenge. It probably wasn't a good thing for Sunderland but it was good for me to learn from him. It's all well watching players like Berbatov, but it's not until you actually play against them that you realise the level you have to get to."

Evans's education on Wearside could yet benefit United. Having spent the second half of last season on loan at Sunderland, he returned shortly after his 20th birthday in January, following the United Christmas party rape allegations. Butany sense of disturbance hasnot been seen in any of hiseight performances.

Sunderland remain in a perilous position but Evans has helped plug leaks that sprung most alarmingly when the Wearsiders went to Goodison Park in November. Seven goals were conceded that day, and it is Everton who visit the Stadium of Light this afternoon.

Worryingly, Sunderland have won one game in four, and with Chelsea up next followed by a trip to Aston Villa, belief needs buttressing. One statistic that encourages, however, is that Sunderland are yet to concede a home League goal this year. There have been only three games, admittedly, but Evans has appeared in each: Portsmouth2-0, Birmingham 2-0, Wigan 2-0.

"It's the whole package with Jonny," says Roy Keane. "He trains well, he's on time, good attitude, he's popular with fans, the other lads, the staff, a really good lad. I don't know if he was tortured by Berbatov, he's being harsh on himself. It says something that we remember his mistakes; I sometimes have to remember how young he is."

Sunderland fans also have to remember that he is not theirs. Sometimes it feels like Evans is, though. "I've slotted back in nicely," he says, "on and off the pitch. It's good to be back." Stay up and it is unimaginable that Sunderland will let Evans go back to United without a tussle, possibly an expensive one. "If I did decide to leave [United], and if Sunderland came in for me, that would be something I'd be interested in," Evans says. "When it comes to the Premier League and one of the top teams like Man United, every point is crucial. In that situation, it's harder to put younger players in."

Keane is never glib about United, and considers sitting on the bench there a privilege. "Otherwise you're up in the stands eating the prawn sandwiches. We'd hope we'd have an advantage [if Evans leaves] but Jonny's a clever lad – have you seen his results from school? All A's. Too clever for us."