John Stones: One of a kind

There was a moment in England’s semi-final clash with Denmark which perfectly summed up John Stones. 

With the game finely poised at 1-1, the City man received a pass from Kalvin Phillips around 30 yards from his own goal in the first period of extra time, sparking a high press from Danish duo Martin Braithwaite and Yussuf Poulsen. 

A pass back to Phillips was available, as was a clipped ball over the onrushing Braithwaite to release Luke Shaw, but Stones had other ideas, gliding between the two players and into the space in front. 

The centre back again opted not to relinquish possession, instead effortlessly selling Tottenham’s Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg a dummy before threading a ball out to the left wing for Jack Grealish to spring an attack. 

It was the kind of calculated risk that has endeared Stones to English supporters and Premier League followers alike over the past eight years. 

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A player of supreme composure and technical quality who, no matter the pressure surrounding a particular match, never allows the occasion to seep into his footballing style.

There were some teething problems in the 27-year-old’s early years but, after a truly phenomenal 2020/21 campaign at the heart of the City defence, those naysayers have been resoundingly silenced.

Stones and goalkeeper Jordan Pickford are the only two players in England’s defensive unit to have started all of their Euro 2020 matches thus far, as the Three Lions prepare for an inaugural European Championship final with Italy.

And while England’s forward line, courtesy of the heroics of Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane in particular, have helped see Gareth Southgate’s side through to Sunday’s showpiece, it’s the cohesive rearguard which have rewritten the record books and taken the plaudits.

Since the advent of the group stage format in 1980, no other side had kept five successive clean sheets from their first match of the tournament and only Spain had previously reached the final with as impressive a defensive record as England’s solitary goal conceded thus far.

It’s also testament to the Three Lions’ defensive setup that Mikkel Damsgaard’s strike in the semi-final, their only blemish on an otherwise watertight Euro 2020, came from a free-kick rather than an open play setting.

Stones has been at the heart of that success, a consistent performer at two major tournaments that have instilled a genuine belief and captured the imagination of a previously apathetic English following, starved of genuine hope for so long.

The City defender’s international debut actually came in the midst of a changing of the guard for England, ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

The last survivors of the fabled ‘golden generation’ were entering the final stages of their international career, with the likes of Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney all embarking on their final World Cup tournament.

Stones, coming off the back of a breakthrough season at previous employers Everton, was named on the reserve list of Roy Hodgson’s 23-man squad and made his national team bow when he came off the bench in a 3-0 victory over Peru in May 2014.

Another 15-minute cameo followed five days later in a 2-2 draw with Ecuador, but the then 20-year-old wouldn’t feature in the final squad, which bowed out at the group stages after finishing bottom of Group D.

The City defender made his first international start in a 2-0 Euro 2016 qualifiers triumph over Switzerland two months later as he continued to find his feet in the Premier League.

However, a combination of an ankle injury ruling the 20-year-old out of the October international break and a stint with England’s Under-21s meant Stones’ next senior cap would have to wait another twelve months.

As his stock continued to rise, Stones would feature regularly in the buildup to Euro 2016, starting in friendly victories over France, Turkey and Australia as well as a 2-1 defeat to Holland.

And that progress was rewarded with a spot in Hodgson’s final 23-man squad as the Three Lions made the short journey over the English Channel in search of a first European Championship trophy.

But it was a tournament to forget, with Stones watching on from the bench as England were embarrassed in the round of 16 by Iceland.

The defender would join City later that summer and, from the embers of that humiliation in Nice, he became a regular in a new look national team under Gareth Southgate, missing just three of 19 matches in all competitions ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Little was expected of the Three Lions as they travelled east, a restoration of national pride was considered a major target over progression to the latter stages of a tournament containing several sides seemingly at the peak of their powers.

But Stones, one of eleven survivors from Euro 2016, and co. would defy all expectations as they reached a first World Cup semi-final in 28 years.

En route to the last four, the City defender would even get himself on the scoresheet for the first time in England colours, grabbing a brace in a 6-1 humbling of Panama in the group stages.

Croatia would eventually end the Three Lions’ unlikely dreams of glory, but a nation had been captivated for the first time in a generation, and that interest has looked unlikely to wane ever since.

A frustrating two years followed for Stones, with the City man earning just two caps after 2018 with a combination of injuries seeing him fall down the pecking order in Gareth Southgate’s side.

But the turning point came at the beginning of the 2020/21 season when, paired alongside new City signing Ruben Dias, the defender started to regain his mojo.

The Yorkshireman forged a formidable partnership at the heart of the defence alongside the Portuguese international as City swept all before them en route to a third Premier League title in four years.

Pep Guardiola’s men would finish with the division’s best defensive record, keeping a clean sheet in 50% of our matches across the 38-game season.

At the forefront of that success was Stones, in the form of his life and enjoying every second of an historic campaign in which City earned a Premier League and Carabao Cup double, and reached a maiden Champions League final.

The rewards for his hard work followed, as he forced his way back into Southgate’s squad for a series of World Cup qualifiers in March 2021 and was deservedly named in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year alongside six of his City teammates.

Since then, Stones has once again established himself as one of the first names on the team sheet at Euro 2020, helping England reach the final with a near-perfect defensive record.

The Three Lions are entering uncharted waters this weekend, with Roberto Mancini’s Italy all that stands in their way of glory.

Stones and co. will already be remembered fondly for their exploits at this summer’s tournament and the 2018 World Cup.

Win on Sunday, however, and that affection transforms into immortality.