Jonny Evans revealed he often still thinks of “big inspiration” Roy Keane when he is on the pitch ahead of Northern Ireland’s meeting with the Republic of Ireland in Dublin.
The two teams face each other at the Aviva Stadium on Thursday evening, when the 30-year-old’s side go into friendly battle with his football hero sitting on the Republic bench as manager Martin O’Neill’s assistant.
Leicester defender Evans grew up idolising the former Manchester United skipper, who left Old Trafford just months before he emerged from the ranks, but later handed him two hugely instructive loan spells during his time as Sunderland manager.
Asked what impact Keane had on his career, Evans said: “Massive. He was the player I looked up to most when I was growing up as a United fan. He was the United captain and then I went on to play for him at Sunderland in two loan spells.
“He was a big inspiration for me and I still think of him a lot when I am on the pitch. I think, ‘Well, if Roy Keane was in this situation and things were tough, then he’d roll his sleeves up and continue fighting’.
“Sometimes maybe I think, ‘Is he still watching me?’. He’s still got that hold on me!”
Evans made 19 appearances for the Black Cats during the second half of the 2006-07 season and helped the club win promotion to the Premier League as champions, and he played 16 games in the top flight as they clinched survival at the end of the following campaign after again making a temporary move in January.
He said: “It was my first time playing competitive league football in England. When you are a young player and making your way up, you always wonder as to whether you can make that next step up and it was the next progression for me at that time.
“I was grateful that he had given me that opportunity to go to Sunderland as I had been on loan at Antwerp. I thought that I was going to be there for the season, but then word went around that Sunderland were interested and he was the manager.
Evans is in line to win his 75th senior cap in Dublin but met up as his club are still reeling from the horror of the helicopter crash which claimed the lives of Foxes owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and the four other people on board.
He said: “Obviously, only being at the club four or five months now, I didn’t have the same relationship as a lot of the lads have had over the years. But from the first day I got there, they spoke about the chairman nearly every day. There’s such fondness for him and the things he was doing for the club.
“They loved him really, so when everything happened, to see the ways the lads reacted in the changing room – they were all devastated.
“It was a big loss and it affected a lot of people in a way I didn’t imagine.”