Hectic times for the new 'Makele'
Bright-eyed, fresh-faced and straight-backed, Corry Evans radiates health and fitness. Given his impending schedule, such vitality seems not so much a good thing as an absolute necessity.
The 25-year-old is not the type to slump or mooch but even he leans, albeit momentarily, against a wall when someone reminds him of the itinerary ahead. Nine games in 28 days for Blackburn - starting with today's FA Cup fifth-round tie at home to West Ham - will be followed by two friendlies with Northern Ireland. So that's 11 matches in 37 days, not to mention the small matter of his second child being due in two weeks' time.
"Paternity leave? Yeah, that would be nice," he laughs. "If I'm lucky I'll get a couple of days off." Yet Evans remains remarkably upbeat.
He may be a little anxious about his three-year-old daughter's reaction to a new sibling - "She's very clingy at the moment" - but having left Manchester United without making a competitive first-team appearance, he can see the upside of playing twice a week.
After years on the Old Trafford margins, the younger brother of the West Brom and former United defender Jonny rather likes being in demand. He is keen to test himself against West Ham and remains confident Paul Lambert's side can start climbing the Championship table.
Then comes a trip to France and the European Championship with Northern Ireland. This son of Belfast says he is very excited.
First up, though, are West Ham and a chance to remind people that the 1995 Premier League winners have not quite fallen off the edge of the world. "The FA Cup is a way of putting this club back on the map," says Evans.
After years dominated by debt and controversy, Venky's, Blackburn's Indian owners, have acknowledged mistakes and things seem to be stabilising at Ewood Park. A transfer embargo imposed for breaches of financial fair play regulations has been lifted, the team appears refreshed by Lambert's coaching and Jordi Gomez and Danny Graham arrived from Sunderland in January.
The only downside is that the need to balance the books involved a side 18th in the Championship - eight points above the relegation zone - selling their star striker, Jordan Rhodes, to Middlesbrough for £11m.
"This club's had a very bad press over the last few years in terms of the owners and the financial restraints we've been under," says Evans. "But last year we still managed to take Liverpool to an FA Cup quarter-final replay. Promotion is the major aim next season. For a club this size, with these facilities and this history, it's very important to get back into the Premier League." As he speaks Evans gestures to the impressive buildings that comprise Brockhall, Blackburn's magnificently appointed Ribble Valley training base. Outside lies one of England's best kept secrets, the stunning Pennine landscape that helped inspire JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The Ribble air certainly seems to be doing Lambert a power of good, with Blackburn's manager looking a good decade younger and a whole lot sunnier than during a turbulent, increasingly morose, period in charge of Aston Villa.
"Paul Lambert's been really good," says Evans. "On his first day [in November] he told us what he expects - which is hard work. His training is very intense. It's taken a while for the lads to get used to it but we're definitely starting to play the way he wants now - on the front foot and pressing high up the pitch."
The only shame is that Rhodes is no longer around. "Jordan was great for Blackburn," says Evans. "His goals helped us massively over the last two or three years. He's a great lad and a great professional but he's gone. We've got to move on now, prove we can spread the goals around the team and still push up the table."
His habit of looking you straight in the eye while answering questions possibly reflects well on the Old Trafford academy. "They looked at developing you as a person as well as a footballer," says a player once dubbed the "new Claude Makelele".
With the closest Evans coming to a first-team game for United being a solitary Premier League outing as an unused substitute at Hull - [who he would subsequently sign for] - leaving was hard but essential.
"I made my senior international debut [in a defeat to Italy in Pisa in June 2009] for Northern Ireland without having played a first-team game, which was quite strange," he says. "You reach a stage where you need to play in front of proper crowds. Hull was great for me."
He spent two years at the KC Stadium, leaving for Blackburn in August 2013. Back then France 2016 was a distant dream. "It's only really starting to sink in now it's getting close," he says. "Just after we qualified it didn't seem real. My immediate family is all in Manchester now but I was born in Belfast and my wife's from there too, so I know what it means to Northern Ireland. It's given the whole country a massive lift.
"I'm really excited about France and I do think we can surprise people. In the past our underdog status has always played very well for us; we've beaten teams like Spain and England.
"If we can get off to a good start against Poland, then we've got Ukraine and, finally Germany. I'm looking forward to playing Germany. It won't be easy but. . . if we stay disciplined and keep playing to our strengths, who knows? Michael O'Neill, our manager, has us very well organised, he goes into every detail.
"When you watch European Championships and World Cups on television it's something you fantasise about being part of, so playing against some of the world's best players is a dream for me. But I do think Northern Ireland can go to France, do well and impress a lot of people around the world."
He rooms with his brother on international duty. "We're close," he says. Today Jonny will be in the Ewood stands "We believe we can get to the quarter-finals again," says the younger Evans. "But this club should be playing teams like West Ham every week."
Blackburn v West Ham 2.0, BT Sport 2
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