The news, received by Sir Alex Ferguson over his cornflakes on Sunday morning, that Rio Ferdinand had suffered the latest of the back spasms that have now kept him out of domestic combat for a month, was, on the Manchester United manager's own admission, a "big problem". The individual who assumed his role again – Jonny Evans – could certainly have been forgiven for anticipating a big problem, with Chelsea in town.
In his brief senior career, Evans has grown accustomed to the unexpected big occasion. He was in Belfast with the Northern Ireland squad three years back when Lawrie Sanchez told him that he would be making his debut, out of position at left-back, against a Spain side parading Fernando Torres at Windsor Park. Evans acquitted himself well in a famous 3-2 European Championship qualifying victory. His United league career began in equally ominous surrounds – Stamford Bridge, where he played alongside Ferdinand in the 1-1 draw against Chelsea back in September, and the player's distinguished solidity in that position has rarely been in dispute since.
United's defensive record makes any member of the rearguard look good but the statistics do not deceive: United have conceded just seven goals on the 13 occasions Evans has played for United this season. That's one goal every 167 minutes.
The display against Chelsea was not quite impeccable – the game was less than a minute old when Evans, who was 21 the weekend before last, dived into a challenge on Didier Drogba in which the Ivorian left him for dust – but he recovered to deliver half-a-dozen command challenges in one of his best displays yet for United. "The whole team was good but he played very well," Nemanja Vidic said of Evans yesterday. "It is always good as a defender when the team does not concede a goal and Jonny played his part in that." Ferguson was more effusive. "Marvellous," was his definition. "For a young boy, 21 only a week ago, he was absolutely superb. His reading of the game, his use of the ball, he was a giant like many of our players."
Ferguson can be selective with his praise at times, for fear of overinflating his players' sense of worth. He was positively curmudgeonly about Wayne Rooney back in October when he sensed the euphoria surrounding the player running away with itself. But he always praises Evans to the heavens at the least opportunity – "his maturity and reading of the game has been a godsend," he declared only on Friday – and the defender's positional play, tackling and general vision on Sunday did bear out Ferguson's assertion, 48 hours before, about United having gone out to build a side while Chelsea bought one.
Perhaps Ferguson's affection is a product of the fact that he has needed to keep an eye on Evans in recent years. As the Irishman tells it, one of the first telephone calls after his Irish debut was from Ferguson, instructing him to keep his feet on the ground. And then there was the player's involvement in an altercation, after Northern Ireland's European Championship defeat by Iceland, between Keith Gillespie and George McCartney on the flight home. Gillespie had apparently taken exception to McCartney telling Evans that Gillespie had hidden the United defender's passport. Ferguson was not happy that Evans had been out drinking after the match with Gillespie. Both United and the Irish Football Association fined Evans.
Evans also tells a story about his first morning back in Manchester, having been sent off for two games in succession at United's feeder club, Royal Antwerp. "The first person I saw as I sat there eating my breakfast [at United's Carrington training headquarters] was Sir Alex and he made a joke about it," Evans recalled. "It's not something I want to repeat in a hurry." Both incidents demonstrate the fiery streak in an individual who, despite an upbringing on the Belfast's tough Rathcoole estate, where he was spotted by United playing for the Greenisland Boys junior side, is a generally quiet and retiring individual.
On loan to Roy Keane's Sunderland side, he played a vital role in promotion to the Premier League two years back but Ferguson was reluctant to let Keane sign him and after talk of Ipswich's interest this time last year, he is cast in Old Trafford metal just now, also having put behind him the claim that he assaulted a woman at United's 2007 Christmas party. That charge was later dropped.
United indicated yesterday there would be no word until today at the earliest on the scan Ferdinand has undergone on his back, though Evans is likely to be in the United side which can move within two points of Liverpool with a game in hand by overcoming Wigan tomorrow night. In selecting him, Ferguson will not bat an eyelid.
United's No 23: Jonny Evans by numbers
The first-team appearances Evans has made for Manchester United, six of them in the European Cup.
2 Evans at Old trafford
Jonny's younger brother, Corry, is at the club's academy.
23 caps and shirt
The midfielder's squad number and the number of times he has been capped for Northern Ireland.
Evans' goals – two at Antwerp and one for Sunderland.
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