Sir Alex Ferguson insists defender Jonny Evans has a long-term future at Manchester United and has backed the Northern Ireland international to build a successful long-term partnership with Chris Smalling.

6670 - Fergie predicts bright future for Evans

Evans started the season partnering Nemanja Vidic at centre back in the absence of the injured Rio Ferdinand, but was linked with a loan move away from Old Trafford in the January transfer window.

He has made just one league start since September, with Smalling handed the responsibility of deputising for Ferdinand following another injury setback to the England skipper.

But despite rumours that Evans had fallen out of favour with Ferguson, the United boss is convinced that Smalling and Evans are the future of the team and can build a partnership to succeed Ferdinand and Vidic at the heart of the United defence.

"They're young, but Evans for example has already played a lot of games for us," Ferguson told the club's official website. "He played almost three quarters of the matches last season. He is well grounded in terms of what's needed here. His time will come.

"One of the first things I said to Martin Edwards when I first came to United was, 'you don't have very good partnerships at the centre of defence', and the goalkeeping situation was never a regular thing either.

"When we got [Peter] Schmeichel, [Steve] Bruce and [Gary] Pallister it was an incredible turnaround in consistency. The knowledge they gathered together, particularly with Bruce and Pallister, gave them that understanding. And they seldom missed games. That's something you build over time.

"That just shows that partnerships are vitally important. We've seen that with Nemanja and Rio, and hopefully Jonny and Chris can develop that too."