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Northern Ireland defender Jonny Evans has admitted he feared the troublesome foot injury which plagued him for the early part of this season could have been career-threatening.
The 33-year-old made his first appearance for his country since March on Friday night as he returned to anchor the defence in a 1-0 win over Lithuania, his 92nd cap, but had missed the previous three camps due to plantar fasciitis.
Having hobbled off in the first half of the FA Cup Final in May, Evans missed several games for Leicester at the start of this season, though he has been a regular presence since returning for the 4-2 win over Manchester United on October 16.
Asked if he had feared for his career, Evans said: “There was a point probably where I did think that myself, I thought, ‘I’m really struggling here, maybe I’m not going to get back’.
“I had people around me, club doctors and people who I spoke to who gave me great reassurance on that. I wish I’d been able to come back a bit sooner. I wasn’t able to but I think there was maybe a point where I thought, ‘Maybe that’s me done, I’ll be on 91 caps forever’.
“But now I’m back here, my injury is in a great place. I wouldn’t even call it an injury anymore.”
Evans was a frustrated observer as Northern Ireland’s World Cup qualifying bid came up short, while his time on the sidelines also prevented him from moving closer to earning a 100th cap for his country.
That goal is back in sight, however, as Evans has not let thoughts of retirement enter his mind with another Nations League campaign and Euro 2024 qualifying on the horizon.
“I’d love to get to 100,” Evans said. “I was on 91 for a long time. There’s been a frustrating element to it. I know not that many players have managed to get to 100. It would be an achievement that I really want to get.”
Evans’ return for Northern Ireland on Friday was much needed with Daniel Ballard out injured, and his experience will be vital when the qualifying campaign wraps up on Monday against an Italy side who come to Windsor Park needing a result as the European champions battle Switzerland for top spot in Group C.
Though Ian Baraclough’s side needed an own goal from Benas Satkus to beat Lithuania at Windsor Park, it was a positive performance from Northern Ireland, particularly in the first half, after last month’s disappointment.
And the manager – who has agreed a new contract which is expected to be signed in the coming days – said the display was a blueprint for how he wanted his side to play.
“It’s how I want us to look whether that’s against Lithuania or indeed Italy,” Baraclough said.
“I know we may not have much of the ball against Italy, but when we do I want us to be positive, look energetic, look forward. Be confident to play a pass to someone in a difficult area or switch play.
“It’s important that the blueprint doesn’t change.”