BY RICHARD CAWLEY
George Evans is loving life at Millwall and has made a big statement to back up exactly how smoothly his opening months in SE16 have gone.
The 26-year-old was signed from Derby County on the final day of the winter transfer window.
And Evans has started all 14 Championship matches since, double the amount of appearances he accrued in all competitions for the Rams in the first four months of the season.
“It’s been almost like a dream start,” said the former Manchester City youngster. “It’s the most I’ve enjoyed my football in my career and that is due to a great manager and the dressing room environment.
“It’s been the whole experience, there is not one bad thing I can say so far. This is a great club and a great set of lads. I knew some of them like Coops [Jake Cooper], Scottie [Malone] and Mason [Bennett]. I’ve just fitted in so well, and that familiarity has made it easier.
“On the football side I’ve had 14 consecutive starts, which I’ve not done in a long, long time.
“I wasn’t looking to go anywhere [in the last transfer window]. I’d been in and out of the team at Derby and I wanted more game time. But I’d just got back in the side there and thought ‘okay, just carry on until the end of the season and see how many games you can get’.”
Instead Evans became the first signing made by Gary Rowett that involved an upfront transfer fee.
The former Derby chief once again raided his old club, as he had done for Malone and Bennett.
“I heard Millwall were interested and after I had a chat with Gary I knew 100 per cent this was the right place for me to come and play my football,” said Evans. “The staff are brilliant as well.
“I’m glad I got the opportunity to come here. They made me feel welcome and he has given me the freedom when I play, you get that backing and trust. Gary has been unbelievable for me.
“His man-management is a strength. He has been very clear over what he wants from me. He also knew how important it was for me to get settled in the area quickly.
“His ideas, in a football sense, are very clear. It’s up to me to go out and deliver. He is very positive. He was one of the biggest factors in me coming to Millwall.”
It was that desire to play which saw Evans opt to leave boyhood club Manchester City for Reading in January 2016.
He had played at every level from U8s up to the senior set-up with the Premier League giants, making his debut as a late subtitute in a 4-1 League Cup win over Sunderland.
“You get the best training, best facilities – best everything,” said Evans. “But game time is all that matters.
“When you’re not getting that at the age of 18 and 19, when I felt I was ready for first-team football, it was difficult. I went on loan to Crewe. I’ve never been shy of going down the leagues and then trying to work my way back.
“I knew that playing games of football is the only way to get noticed and get where you want to be.”
The only other City player to go right through the age groups was Chris Chantler, who never went on to play higher than League One Carlisle.
Cheadle-born Evans dedicated his City debut to his dad Ronnie and grandad Ron.
“That feeling of getting the shout to come back from the warm-up and get ready to come on, everything goes in slow motion,” he said. “I’m very grateful it happened and nobody can take that away from me.
“My dad and my grandad were the two main reasons I got into football. In the school holidays my grandad would take me for hours on end to the big fields in Manchester – just playing with him. They were both big City fans. They put a lot of time and effort in. Without them I wouldn’t have been able to get to training, practise or buy boots – I’ll thank them for that for the rest of my life.”
One of Evans’ idols growing up was Frank Lampard. And he witnessed the former England star’s work ethic when he signed for City in 2014.
“Learning from him was a dream come true for a midfielder. I saw him day in and day out – how he trained and how professional he was. Someone who had achieved everything in the game, and he was still working harder than I was at the time.
“It was a bit of a wake-up call that you can never settle for where you’re at, when you saw someone like Frank doing it. It was very inspiring to make you go and work harder.”
City spotted Evans when he was playing at a JJB Soccer Dome in Manchester.
“When you’re young you don’t really think much of it,” he said. “I got my first scholarship and pro, that’s when things began to turn for me. It felt a bit more real when I left school and it became a full-time job.”
Did he ever fear being released as he came through the ranks at one of England’s elite clubs?
“There is always that ‘what if’ in the back of your mind but you’ve got to have that self-belief of what you’re capable of when times do get tough, because there are loads more downs than there are ups in football,” said Evans.
“You’ve got to make sure when it is a down time that you keep believing in yourself and see where it takes you.
“I knew with my ability and that if I worked hard I wouldn’t fall short. Luckily it has turned out well.”
Evans’ career highlight away from City was reaching the 2017 Championship play-off final with Reading in his first full season at that level.
Millwall’s hopes of the top six were vanquished by a 3-0 loss to Swansea last weekend. But Evans is confident that good times lie ahead.
“We’ve got the base of a fantastic squad,” he said. “It will be a good achievement if we can get seventh or eighth. Hopefully we can have a go, because this squad is good enough to be pushing. We were eighth last year and if we finish somewhere similar then that’s a stable position. If there are some additions, that can spur us on to the top six.”
Evans has played in central defence and midfield for Millwall.
“I take pride that if there is a position to be filled then it is an opportunity for me to get more minutes then you have to do that,” he said. “I’m happy to play anywhere.”
With that kind of attitude, you can see Evans becoming a firm favourite of the manager – if he isn’t already.
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