Sunderland captain Corry Evans opens up on a remarkable season and the key to his brilliant recent form - exclusive

Only once did Alex Neil deviate from his golden rule to take each game as it comes.

With a potentially crucial trip to Plymouth Argyle just a couple of days away, Corry Evans was rested for the visit of Shrewsbury Town on Good Friday.

In the end, he called for Evans anyway: Sunderland had let a two-goal lead slip and for the first time in his tenure, he felt his side were being beaten up.

In a tiny pocket of the Stadium of Light there was some discontent at the substitution, but more broadly the growing importance of the Northern Irishman to this improving side was sinking in. Sunderland steadied, they won, they took a point at Plymouth and kicked on again.

Evans has been in excellent form during Sunderland's unbeaten run

At Home Park he was roared off the pitch, again the anchor his team needed to keep their momentum growing. For player, for team, for club, a corner had been comprehensively turned.

It has been another exhausting season of ups and downs on Wearside and Evans has embodied that journey, the quiet heartbeat of a side that has without fuss produced a 15-unbeaten run to reach Wembley. A team that has dug in, played with resilience and gone 'til the end, time and time again.

The exhilarating early days of the season seem like they belong to another era, but so too do the trying days and nights of January and February when Evans was one of many under the spotlight as a campaign looked like it was imploding.

"It says a lot about the character in the squad, and that we have players with the quality to step up when it matters," Evans tells The Echo.

Corry Evans celebrates a crucial goal against Oxford United

"We've got that in abundance here. The more you do it, the more you get that belief that you can keep reproducing it.

"It's all led to this point: one game to go and try and achieve our goal which is promotion next weekend."

For Evans himself, the factors behind his form have been two-fold and the first is a simple matter of fitness.

Without a full pre-season under his belt, the first half of the season was a constant battle to try and play and contribute while building that base level. It became something of a vicious cycle.

"I think at the start, you're chasing fitness," he says.

"I came in and played against Hearts two days later, at which point I think I'd done half a day of training.

"From then on you're in a position where you're playing games, but you haven't really got that base fitness level [to work from].

"You feel like you're always chasing it, you get a little niggle and when you come back, you're chasing again and all of a sudden you get another niggle.

"That repeated for a few months, and I think any footballer will tell you that getting a clear run of games, you find a consistency and a sharpness within your game.

"I think in the last few months I've been able to show that."

Evans has also been a vital part of Neil's subtle but important tactical changes.

The kind of counter-attacking goals that Sunderland were too often conceding when Neil arrived have all but disappeared, and a key part of that has been the savvy of his captain.

"The manager has changed a few things in the team, which I think has probably helped us in those things you mention, defending against the counter and our vulnerability behind the ball," Evans says.

"There have been little changes in our mentality in that way that have helped us, and they're also roles that I've been used to doing before. I've been able to use my experience to carry that out."

Ask Neil about Evans' importance, and he will outline how so much of his good work is reflected in the tackles he never has to make, the attacks that never happen because he snuffs them out at source.

As the midfielder himself said there is no doubt that his game is sharper and more incisive now than in midwinter, but what has also helped is the perspective that comes with over a decade in the game carrying out this exact task.

Like his manager, blocking out the noise quite clearly comes easily: "It's just about the team for me, at the end of the day.

"I think I'm fairly selfless as a player, it's just about the team getting the wins to go on and be successful. I've always been that type of player - team first.

"Throughout my whole career it's been a bit like that, where people might not appreciate me because I'm not scoring loads of goals or pulling off those wonder passes.

"But I think managers and team-mates have recognised the stuff that I do, the little things that I do within the game that you don't always naturally see.

"I'm used to that, so it's nothing new to me."

Evans may not fit the traditional mould of captain but his understated manner has of late been vital, particularly in the guidance offered to young players still taking their first steps in the game.

"I never doubted we could do this, even in that difficult period," he says.

"I could see the quality we had within the squad when I first joined, and some of the football we were playing and results we were getting, we were really good.

"Sometimes you can go through dips in form and I think we've come out of that period better as players and as a team.

"I think we've learned from those experiences, particularly the younger players who it will be invaluable for moving forward in their careers.

"We've got a lot of talented players who will go on to play at a really high level, and if I can help them in any way, even if it's just a little chat about something, where they could be [on the pitch] or what they could do in certain scenarios, I will.

"There's a good mix here at the moment."

The calm with which Evans speaks about the season gone and the challenge still ahead is striking.

Neil's message of never looking too far ahead has been the bedrock of the late push to get to Wembley and it's one that is reflected in Evans’ measured outlook.

There was pride at edging past Sheffield Wednesday, especially away from home and so late in the game, but attention quickly turned to Wycombe.

There will be a time to reflect on this rollercoaster campaign, but it's not yet.

"It's been a good period for us but you just keep that focus.

"The atmosphere at the Stadium of Light [for the first leg[, that was incredible. The walk out and just throughout the game, it was one of the best I've seen and played in. The fans were amazing.

"Over the past few weeks, it's just been about one game at a time.

"We've definitely enjoyed the moments as a team along the way, scoring late winners and things like that, fighting 'til the end.

"It's been good in the changing rooms afterward, the morale and the confidence, but it very quickly has moved to 'right, the next one'.

"That's been the mentality and it'll stay like that, because we want to win promotion and if you are able to do that, then you can sit back and soak in everything that has happened along the way."

Sunderland will look to Evans once more to be the calm in the eye of the storm.