IT was former Arsenal midfielder and World Cup winner Patrick Vieira who first spotted George Evans’ ability to play as a centre-back.
After finishing his playing career at Manchester City, Vieira was appointed the club’s Elite Development Squad boss in 2013 before guiding the side to victory in the Premier League International Cup in 2014-15.
City defeated Porto 1-0 in the final through current Leicester striker Kelechi Iheanacho’s goal.
Evans made a crucial intervention after that goal when he prevented an equaliser by stretching to get a toe to a shot and deflecting it over Angus Gunn’s crossbar.
Evans would have been glad this season that Vieira spotted that defensive instinct in him after he had mostly played as a midfielder until then.
Evans had only played eight times for Derby before he got the opportunity to join Millwall in January.
With Murray Wallace out injured, Lions boss Gary Rowett needed someone to go into a back three, preferably someone comfortable on the ball who could move forward to join attacks.
Evans was ready-made for the role after his experience in that successful City side.
“Patrick was a coach at the time at Man City with the EDS,” Evans explained to NewsAtDen. “To be fair, he was the first person to put me at centre-back.
“Patrick was obviously a fantastic player, he achieved a lot in the game and I’ve got massive respect for him.
“There was maybe something in my ability to be able to play out from the back that he liked.
“The last season I was there I played the full season at centre-half. We won the [Premier League International Cup]. I played centre-half in that game as well so that’s where it started.
“The last couple of games I played for Derby I was in a back three. It’s something that when I first spoke to the manager I said that in a back three I’m comfortable.
“The game’s in front of me. When there were a few injures there was the opportunity to go and play there and for me it’s great because I feel like I can get more minutes.
“Instead of too drastic a formation with players out injured I can slot in there. It does give me a few more opportunities to play rather than if you’re nailed down in one position.
“It’s a cliché but I’ll play anywhere, especially after the lack of minutes [at Derby]. I’d played midfield most of my career. At Reading [under Japp Stam] they played me in a back three stepping into midfield to try to create overloads. I feel like I can bring the ball forward, I’m comfortable doing that.
“I’m happy to play in defence if it means I’m playing all season.”
After not always being in the picture at Derby, Evans started every one of the 19 league games that were left in 2020-21 after he joined the Lions.
He was certainly never going to complain about fatigue in such an intense season.
“That’s what I wanted,” he said. “The first conversation I had with the manager over Zoom I knew it was a place I wanted to come. It was something I was very excited about.
“There was the opportunity to play and I knew I had to do well to keep the shirt. I’m absolutely delighted how it’s gone so far and I hope I’ve made a bit of an impact.
“But I’m not going to rest on my laurels. I need to make sure next season that I keep my place in the team.
“I didn’t really get that opportunity at Derby last season but I am here now.
“I’ve got nothing but good words to say since I arrived. It’s a fantastic club and it’s the most I’ve enjoyed my football in my whole career. I’ve absolutely loved it.
“The lads have fantastic, the staff are really helpful and the gaffer is brilliant as well.
“I’m looking forward to having a full season at The Den, especially with the fans behind us and the difference that makes. Hopefully that was the last time we’ve played with no fans.”
It’s no surprise that Evans is a good technical footballer after coming through at City and he will be looking at the images of the progress of the new pitch at The Den with interest ahead of next season.
Millwall aren’t suddenly going to make 1,000 passes a game or have 70 per cent possession as Pep Guardiola’s side have against most opponents.
But the Lions showed last season they are developing on the ball, as well as retaining that directness when it’s required.
“Having a brand-new pitch is going to be a massive help for us,” Evans said. “On a better surface we can mix our game because we’re capable of doing both.
“There are some great footballers in the squad and we know we can play teams off the park as well as play the ball forward and get on to second balls.
“We need to find that balance. We’re not going to be a Total Football team, we’ll mix it up.
“The pitch last season was the same for both teams. It’s something that you just have to get a handle on. When you do play on a pitch that’s not great sometimes you need to take that extra touch or pass to make sure the ball settles down.
“But it’s great to see the new pitch going in as that’ll be important for us going forward if we want to get it down and play.”
Millwall ended the season on a low note with their 6-1 defeat to Coventry last Saturday.
Evans, though, looks at the bigger picture and, with fans set to return to The Den, he believes there is a real chance to build on two top-half finishes.
He said: “On the whole it’s been a fantastic season. In the short time I’ve been here I’ve loved every second of it and I think a top-half finish again is a good achievement.
“I know that the fans play a massive part and that’s something I’m excited about. I speak to the lads a lot and they’ve said the difference is incredible when the fans are behind us.
“It was a disappointing end to the season but finishing top half is something we can build on and kick on next season.
“There are definitely good foundations there.
“I’m thinking about next season already. I’ve had a few days off now and am thinking about pre-season.
“The gaffer said we need to kick on next season. We’re definitely capable of pushing on. We’re not necessarily setting definite targets for but we just have to try to push as much as we can.
“We’ve got some great players in the squad, I’ve seen that even in the short time I’ve been here. Hopefully we can keep climbing the table next season.”
Image: Millwall FC