Nineteen months have passed since Jonny Evans was sitting on the back of a golf cart with Sir Alex Ferguson chatting about his next career move after being informed by Louis van Gaal that he was surplus to requirements at Manchester United.
“There were a few whispers and I was playing golf one day at one of the United Foundation events,” the Northern Ireland defender recalled. “Sir Alex took me to the side, sitting on the golf buggy, and talked it through with me. He’s obviously big friends with Tony Pulis [at West Bromwich Albion] and was pushing me in that direction. I thanked him for that at the time and took his advice.”
Michael Keane tends to be the main source of frustration among United fans these days when they discuss defenders who got away but they will encounter another old boy playing the best football of his career when West Brom visit Old Trafford. Evans and compatriot Gareth McAuley have formed arguably the Premier League’s most underrated central-defensive pairing, a partnership that has also served as the bedrock of Northern Ireland’s resurgence on the international scene.
Evans’s only regret about Saturday's game, though, is that the suspended Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be missing for United. Evans is far too modest to suggest the club made a mistake letting him go, or that he could see the writing on the wall under Van Gaal. If anything, he feels he needed to leave to grow as a defender.
Yet he still scratches his head at Keane’s £2 million sale to Burnley eight months before his own departure in August 2015 and, aware that Jose Mourinho has claimed there are players he would never have allowed to leave Old Trafford, he wonders if Van Gaal was a little too trigger happy.
“There were a lot of decisions at the end with United that were made quite quickly,” Evans says. “I’m not saying that on behalf of myself, but I was surprised that Michael Keane was sold at the time. Having been in his position myself and come through United’s academy, I was surprised at that one.
“Me, on the other hand, that wasn’t a surprise. I could see the signs. I felt like it was the time for that to happen. There was no problem. I was looking forward to a new challenge because I knew that once I got playing again, I could really push on.
“I don’t think I would have ever left the club if I’d had that feeling of ‘What if?’. You had Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, two young England centre-backs, Marcos Rojo had come in as a new signing. They were younger than me and if there was anyone that was going to move on … I’m not saying that I was playing the worst at the time and they were playing so far ahead, but they were playing more games than me.”
Not that Evans bears any ill feeling towards Van Gaal. In fact, he credits his former manager with making him a far more rounded defender.
“I broke my foot at the start of Van Gaal’s first season against Leicester away and I had the spitting ban [Evans was banned for six matches for spitting at Newcastle United striker Papiss Cissé],” he recalls. “I missed an awful lot of that season but I learned so much playing for Van Gaal in that one year it was crazy.
“Whatever people say about him and his spell in charge of 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. He was very into his positional play and team shape, no matter if you were a centre-back, a midfielder or a winger.
“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 after leaving where things started clicking into place and I started to understand the things that he was talking about a lot better. I did a lot of thinking in that spell.”
Back in 2008, the story goes that Ferguson chose Evans over Gerard Piqué, who went on to become an integral part of the dominant Barcelona and Spain teams. Evans says otherwise. “I don’t think it was ever a case of Ferguson wanting to sell him,” he explained. “Gerard wanted to go. I don’t think it was ever a case of ‘We’ll keep Jonny because he’s better’, which I have seen a lot of fans say before!”
A year Piqué’s junior at 29, Evans was linked with a move to Arsenal last year, believes his best days are ahead of him and is relishing playing alongside McAuley who, at 37, is showing signs of speeding up, not slowing down.
“I feel, personally, that I’ve still got loads to improve on,” he said. “I still feel that my best playing days are to come and I can improve an awful lot.
“Gareth is very underrated. People think he can’t move. He’s one of the fittest players in our team. He’s a machine. We understand the way each other plays. We both listen to each other a lot. We cover each other well. We very rarely argue. We’re a very harmonious pairing.”
Evans is disappointed he will not get the chance to mark Ibrahimovic again. He has faced the striker in the past for United and in a Euro qualifier against Sweden. Evans has first-hand experience of those occasions when Ibrahimovic flattens a centre-half and then stands menacingly over his prostrate victim.
“He did that to me in that Sweden game,” Evans recalled. “He was saying ‘Get up’ with a few expletives at the end! I remember at the time thinking, this guy is one of the strongest, most skilful players I’ve ever faced. I remember touching his body and feeling his six-pack through his shirt. I’m gutted I’m not going to get the chance to play against him.”
It speak volumes for how far down the Old Trafford pecking order Evans’s friend, Wayne Rooney, has fallen that the United and England captain is not guaranteed to be in the squad today, let alone the starting XI. “It’s surprising because you thought Mourinho would have made him the main man,” Evans said. “But it looks like Wayne needs something to kick-start him again. He’ll be back.”
Evans has certainly found his own kick-start.