In the wake of Ellis Simms returning to Everton after a relatively successful loan spell on Wearside, it seems fitting to write about one of the most successful loan players that Sunderland have had in their recent history - Johnny Evans!
Under Roy Keane’s reign, Evans’ January loans to Sunderland in 2007 and 2008 were both pivotal in how the team performed in both seasons - with Roy Keane’s relationship with Manchester United vital in getting the Northern Irishman into the squad.
With Sunderland beginning to build momentum under Keane in his first season in management, the central defence was probably something that was of concern due to the lack of a settled pairing at the back.
In an attempt to shore things up, Keane used his Manchester United contacts to recruit Evans and Danny Simpson - with their impact felt instantly.
Like two long lost brothers, Evans and Nyron Nosworthy formed a partnership at the centre of defence that was almost telepathic. Nosworthy - a journeyman somewhat - found himself in Sunderland when Evans arrived. He’s said himself that Evans gave him the confidence to express himself in a role that was new to him.
Jonny is a big friend and is a cool guy.
I’m able to express myself properly alongside Jonny.
He covers my back and I cover his.
Evans was a born leader and the ability he had was clear from that very season at Sunderland. He went on to make 18 appearances in the second half of the season, scoring one goal against Hull City in a 2-0 win. As we all know, Sunderland went on to seal promotion with Evans as an integral part of the team.
The next season, Evans’ signing was almost just as crucial. Languishing near the relegation zone, Sunderland were struggling to win games and keep clean sheets.
It is said after Sunderland’s 4-0 defeat to Manchester United on Boxing Day Sir Alex Ferguson told Roy Keane to give him a call regarding Evans, with Northern Irishman joining early in the January window.
His signing - along with the signing of Phil Bardsley - stabilised the Sunderland backline where their home form was slowly but steadily rising them up the table. Evans made 15 appearances in the 2007-08 season with each and every one of them crucial to the team as Nosworthy and Evans reunited together.
With Sunderland finishing 15th, there was a growing clamour to try and purchase Evans on a permanent basis - alas, it was never going to happen due to the high standard of performances he put in. He went on to make almost 200 appearances at Old Trafford before eventually leaving in 2016 for West Brom.
In his book, ‘The Second Half’, Keane highlighted the importance of Evans’ signing and cited his character and how he held himself being the biggest thing he liked about him:
Jonny was a centre-half. He had the qualities of a Manchester United player, and he was bringing them to Sunderland. For such a young man – he was nineteen – he was very mature, and a born leader. Jonny was unbelievable for us. He lived with his mam and dad in Sale, near my home, so I picked him up there and brought him up to see the set-up at Sunderland.
I knew I was on a winner; I knew him, and I knew what he was about. I remembered an incident when I was still at United; there’d been a fight in the canteen and Jonny had looked after himself well – I think he knocked the other lad out. I knew Jonny was tough.
A typical response from Keano. Happy Birthday to Johnny and hopefully he and our current captain Corry can celebrate it together!