Jonny Evans is hoping his injury woes are behind him as he prepares to return to Northern Ireland duty against Lithuania on Friday.
Evans has not played for his country since March while also being restricted to nine appearances for Leicester this season due to plantar fasciitis – pain in the sole, heel and arch of the foot – a problem which has affected him since he hobbled out of the FA Cup Final in May.
Though he still suffers mild discomfort, Evans is back in Ian Baraclough’s squad for the final two World Cup qualifiers this weekend and confident the worst is behind him.
“I feel in a good place at the moment with it and I’ve sort of forgotten about it in the last couple of weeks, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “I’ve not been thinking about when I’ve been going out training and I’m really happy with it.”
Evans was a frustrated onlooker as Northern Ireland’s hopes of reaching Qatar 2022 were ended last month in defeat to Switzerland.
“When you’re missing club football and international football, it was a difficult period in my career,” he said.
“It felt like it was going on for a long time and it was difficult to deal with, but I’m happy with where I am now and I’m only looking forward.”
With the qualification campaign coming to an end when Italy visit on Monday and no further competitive fixtures until June, this week has seen further speculation about whether Northern Ireland skipper Steven Davis, 36, might call time on his record-breaking international career.
Evans, 33, had the same question put to him on Thursday.
“It’s a funny thing that happens in your career,” he said. “You hit 30 and you become an ‘experienced player’ and in the next couple of years everyone is waiting for you to retire.
“Sometimes you get asked the question but these thought processes aren’t even in your own head. For me in the last couple of months the most important thing has been trying to get back fit.
“I’ve really missed coming back home for these international games and meeting up with all the players and staff – I’ve been involved so long it’s like an extended family.
“It’s always nice to get home, I’m enjoying that and I’m sure in the future it’s something I’ll continue to enjoy whenever I get the opportunity.”
Evans’ return is particularly welcome for Baraclough with Daniel Ballard – who impressed in his place in recent matches – ruled out with a knee problem.
After World Cup hopes were killed off in Geneva, there was more disappointment last month when Northern Ireland let slip a 1-0 lead to lose 2-1 to Bulgaria and drop to fourth in Group C.
Friday offers an opportunity to put the criticism of their second-half performance in Sofia to bed.
“It’s not easy to get yourself into a (winning position away from home) and we’d done it very, very well,” Baraclough said.
“We’d created chances and we should be in position to see the game out and build on it, but if you drop your standards you get hurt.
“It was looked at as being a shocking second half but we still came back and created chances but couldn’t get the breakthrough. It looks a terrible result, but for me, we’ve drawn a line and we move on. We learn from it of course as a group.”
Baraclough is yet to sign the new contract offer put forward by the Irish FA – his current deal expires at the end of next month – but indicated it would be imminent.
“Whether it’s in the next couple of days we sign or after this camp, everything is agreed upon and I don’t see anything changing there,” he said.
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