Evans: I'd love to qualify
© AFP

We're told that cream always rises to the top, and with the European Zone's preliminary campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ now approaching its halfway point, the continent's elite are generally bearing this out.

A look over the group leaders certainly throws up few surprises, with Spain, Italy, England, Germany and the Netherlands all comfortably topping their respective pools. Yet among these football goliaths, there is one name that sticks out like a sore thumb.

Northern Ireland, population 1.75 million, were given little chance of competing with the likes of Czech Republic when the draw was first made and yet, with five games played, it is Nigel Worthington's side who hold pole position in Group 3. A key figure in their early success has been Manchester United's Jonny Evans, and in the wake of scoring his first international goal in the 3-2 win over Poland that secured a place at the section's summit, the impressive young centre-half spoke exclusively to FIFA.com.

FIFA.com: Jonny, first of all, congratulations on the win over Poland. How satisfying is it to have put yourselves top of the group?
Jonny Evans:
Everyone's buzzing. It was a tremendous result for us and I don't think there's any doubt that we deserved it. You forget how good it can be winning a big game like that for your country until you see the fans celebrating, dancing about with their shirts off. It was just a great day. To be honest, sometimes I don't think we get enough credit for the teams we've beaten here in Belfast over the past few years. Spain, Sweden, England, Denmark - all top teams - have gone away with nothing from Windsor Park, and now Poland have been added to that list.

Windsor Park has become a real fortress for you. As someone who's used to playing their club football in a very different kind of arena, do you feel the tight, compact nature of the stadium works in your favour?
Definitely. It's not a place visiting teams enjoy coming to play, that's for sure. You're right to say it's no Old Trafford but that's not a bad thing, I think. Sometimes it helps us if the opposition come here and get a bit of a culture shock. I can think of a few teams who've lost something when they've moved from tight little grounds where they're very hard to beat to big, impressive stadiums that teams love going to play in. Southampton in England is an obvious example of that for me (the Saints have gone from the Premier League and an FA Cup final appearance to the bottom of the Championship since moving from The Dell to St Mary's). There's no doubt we see Windsor Park as a real weapon for us. I think the strategy was to get a few away games out of the road first and then give us a run of home fixtures, and I do feel that's benefited us. Given how well we've done at home, we were always confident that we might be able to go on a bit of a run and it looks like that's the way it's turning out. Hopefully that can continue on Wednesday against Slovenia.

You're right to say it's no Old Trafford but that's not a bad thing, I think. Sometimes it helps us if the opposition come here and get a bit of a culture shock.
Evans on Windsor Park

A lot of people will be surprised to see Northern Ireland topping their section. What's the secret to the team's success?
I was going to say that we're not a team neutrals would like to watch, but now I think about it, we probably are because we play the game at such a fast tempo that there's always plenty of excitement and incidents in our games. I also think that, although we're a team that likes to tackle and close people down, there's no dirtiness to our play at all. We're an honest team above all else. The main thing I would say about Northern Ireland is that there's no hierarchy and no egos - everyone just works as hard as the next man, and that's the only way it can be for us. You only have to look at David Healy, who's a hero here because of all the goals he's scored. He's never acted or been treated any differently within the squad and I think that's a great thing in our favour.

You enjoyed a terrific qualifying campaign for UEFA EURO 2008 but ultimately just missed out. Is there a feeling that qualifying must be the next step?
I'd love to see us reach the World Cup, but we also know how difficult it's going to be. I'd never say 'Ah, it's about time we made it'. I'd love to qualify, we all would, but it can't be the benchmark of success for a team like Northern Ireland. We didn't make it to the EURO, but we still did ourselves and the country proud with our performances and got everyone really buzzing about the team again. I don't look back on that as a missed chance because I know we gave it a good go.

You are too young to remember the Northern Ireland teams who qualified for Spain 1982 and Mexico 1986, but what are your first memories of the FIFA World Cup?
My first memory of the World Cup is actually France 98, watching the opening game between Scotland and Brazil. I remember watching a lot of that tournament, seeing Ronaldo score some great goals and Zidane really starting to show what a great player he was. You never think you might be involved in a tournament like that yourself one day and it would be a massive achievement. But we've a long, long way to go.

At club level, you're playing for the European and world champions. It surely can't get much better.
It's a great position for me to be in and I think I appreciate it all the more because I've seen the other side of the game. I was lucky enough to win a Championship medal with Sunderland (Evans spent two seasons on loan with the Wearsiders) but I saw how difficult it was for a club like that to pick up wins in the Premiership, so it's great to be part of a club that‘s always challenging for the big trophies.

It's fantastic to be learning from two such great players. They're obviously very different in certain ways but the one thing they have in common is that they're effective.
Evans on Vidic and Ferdinand.

And yet you very nearly signed for Sunderland permanently, didn't you?
Definitely, there was an obvious case for staying at Sunderland at the time to get first-team football and it came very close to happening. But once the manager made it clear there was no way I was going anywhere, I was more than happy to knuckle down and fight for my place.

You must be delighted to have made close to 30 appearances for United already this season, especially as you're competing against Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, widely considered to be the best central defensive pairing in football.
They're both fantastic players but, personally, I don't view myself as competing against them as such. I've played quite a lot this season and I'm delighted to have done that but I'm realistic enough to know that, for the moment at least, those two will always be first choice when they're fit and available. It's my job to try and change that over the next few years but in the meantime it's fantastic to be learning from two such great players. They're obviously very different in certain ways but the one thing they have in common is that they're effective.

Along with those two, you helped set that amazing record of 14 successive clean sheets earlier this year. How satisfying was that?
That was a terrific achievement and it was great to know I'd played my own part in it. I was actually playing in the game we lost the record and we were all gutted because it was a cheap goal that ended it for us. But it was a great feeling to keep that going for so long and, as a team, it was something that we were extremely proud of.

Do you feel United's recent setbacks are just a blip, or is there something there of genuine concern?
I don't think it's anything to worry about. We're still top - we're in a great position in fact - and I think the international break probably came at the right time for us. The boys have been on the go pretty much non-stop since the Club World Cup in December and I think a little break and change of scenery will probably do us all good.