Jonny Evans returns to Old Trafford on Saturday “gutted” to be facing Manchester United without the suspended Zlatan Ibrahimovic but curious at how the club has progressed since Jose Mourinho took over from the man who sold him, Louis van Gaal.
Evans also returns as a West Brom player intent on helping his club reach 50 points in the Premier League for the first time. The tally is well within touching distance after the emphatic 3-1 defeat of Arsenal before the international break took them onto 43 points.
The Baggies should not be daunted. Having not won at Old Trafford since 1978, West Brom have been victorious on two of their past three visits, beating first David Moyes’ United, then Van Gaal’s. Evans was an Old Trafford employee then.
Now he sees another United re-emerging under Mourinho, although it will not be led by its talisman Ibrahimovic on Saturday.
“I was actually a bit gutted when I found out he wasn’t playing,” Evans said of the Swede, “because he’s one of those players that everyone in the league wants to play against.
“I’ve played against him twice. I think the first time was when he made his Sweden comeback. He’d had a fallout with the Swedish national team and he came back and played in Belfast, and we managed to beat them 2-1 that night [in March 2007].
“I remember thinking he was a big star back then, and that was 10 years ago. Then I played against him at Inter in the Champions League [in February 2009].
“I was a young kid at the time playing against him and Adriano up front - they were two beasts. I’m skinny now but I was a lot skinnier back then. I remember touching his [Ibrahimovic’s] body and feeling his six-pack through his shirt. He’s gone on to produce for Manchester United. He’s surprised everyone, including myself.”
Evans has also experienced the ‘Zlatan glare’, while prostrate on the turf.
“He did that to me actually in the Sweden game. He was saying ‘get up’ - with a few expletives at the end. He left a late tackle on me and I was trying to make the most of it to get him booked. He said in that accent: ‘Get up!’”
Together with Mourinho and Paul Pogba, Evans thinks Ibrahimovic is part of a recharged club.
“I think they’ve made a positive impact,” he adds, “I don’t think you can deny that. There’s a better atmosphere and they are attacking and back to their old style.
“Some games, Mourinho knows how to shut up shop, but there’s a bit more flow to their game. They’ve got a real winning mentality under Mourinho, you can see it coming through.”
One player Evans felt would be central to this is Wayne Rooney – “It’s surprising, you’d have thought Mourinho would have made him the main man. But it looks like Wayne needs something to kickstart him again. He’ll be back.”
Fully fit, just turned 29, and over 50 Premier League appearances for West Brom in the past two seasons, Evans is in the sort of confident form that might have some United fans, and Mourinho, wondering why he departed.
Evans, though, is in no doubt. Having been at Old Trafford from early teenage years, Evans said that by the end of the August transfer window in 2015 “it made sense from a club point of view.”
He could see what Van Gaal was writing on the wall regarding his future and after a golf-day chat with Sir Alex Ferguson, Evans was soon speaking to Tony Pulis.
There was speculation about Arsenal but Evans is open and honest: “I didn’t have a big array of options.”
“I was surprised that Michael Keane was sold,” whereas of himself, Evans adds: “That wasn’t a surprise. I could see the signs.
“I’m very comfortable with it. I don’t think I’d have ever left the club if I’d had that feeling of: ‘What if?’”
The only hint of regret concerns Van Gaal. Evans started only 12 Premier League games in his last season, Van Gaal’s first.
“I had the spitting ban and broke my foot at the start against Leicester away. I missed an awful lot of that season but I learned so much in that one year it was crazy.
“Whatever people say about him and his spell in charge of Manchester United, he was a fantastic coach. I learned as much in that one year as I did in a lot of years as a Premier League footballer.
“But I never felt I was in the right frame of mind or had the right opportunity to show him that. It probably wasn’t until six months or a year later after leaving, things started clicking into place and I started to understand the things that he was talking about a lot better.”
West Brom – and Northern Ireland – have felt the benefit. The Irish beat Norway last Sunday in a World Cup qualifier to remain second in their group behind Germany. Evans reveals the Fergusonian drive within manager Michael O’Neill meant that as a weary dressing room contemplated exit from Euro 2016 in France last summer, O’Neill was on about qualifying for the World Cup.
“You could see a few of the lads looking at each other because we were mentally shattered. Anyone who knows what he’s like in the job, he’s very organised, his attention is frightening.”
Evans, Gareth McAuley and Chris Brunt started against Norway. It might have been a quartet had James McClean, who played under-21 football for Northern Ireland, not opted to play for the Republic at senior level.
Evans jokes that the average Hawthorns day “usually revolves around myself, Gareth and Brunty winding up James McClean about the fact he used to play for Northern Ireland one day and now he plays for the Republic.”
But there is clearly green harmony and teamwork under those Baggie stripes. There is that 50-point target and, having beaten Arsenal, with United, City, Liverpool and Chelsea yet to face, West Brom are also involved in determining England’s involvement in next season’s Champions League. There is much to fight for, and Evans says: “I still feel that my best playing days are to come.”