The Making of John Stones

There was a surprise inclusion when Gerard Pique was tasked with picking his world XI on the eve of Spain’s international friendly with England in November 2015.

The team was as you might expect for a player who has won it all at both club and international level as part of the legendary Barcelona and Spain sides that simultaneously dominated football during a glorious golden era from 2008.

Lionel Messi, Neymar and Andres Iniesta were all included in the stellar line-up and, so too was a 21-year-old John Stones, who was an unused substitute as La Roja won 2-0 in Alicante the following evening.

Then of Everton, Stones’ modern, ball-playing approach had won him plenty of admirers and inclusion in Pique’s all-star team evidenced the high regard he was held in across Europe.

"I think John Stones is a really, really, good player," said the Spaniard. "He will have a good career. He’s like Rio [Ferdinand], a bit.

"Now the position of the centre-back is not just about defending or being nasty or tough. It’s about knowing how to play football, control the ball, pass and be more comfortable in possession.”

Tucked away in an office at Barnsley’s training ground, Mark Burton could have been forgiven for giving himself a pat on the back.

Burton was Head of Academy Coaching at Oakwell between 2007 and 2017, working with Stones as he progressed all the way through the youth ranks to the first team and Pique’s praise for his former charge will have felt like justification for a job well done.

“I would reference Pique and Mascherano at Barcelona because they just wanted to play,” he tells

“I’d watch them and ask John did you watch Barcelona last night? Pique stepping in, stepping up, [playing] little one-twos with Busquets and Iniesta.”

Eight years after leaving his hometown club, stepping out of defence and the ability to move the ball under pressure are two of the attributes which have put Stones in the same bracket as Pique.

He is a world class player in a world class Manchester City team whose bulging trophy cabinet is the product of an unwavering commitment to an attacking philosophy in which dominating possession is sacred.

It is a stark contrast to Barnsley’s fortunes during Stones’ time at Oakwell.

In 2011-12, when he made his first team debut, the Tykes narrowly avoided relegation to League One with a 21st place finish in the Championship and in the five years previous, 17th in the second tier was the best the Yorkshire outfit could muster.

Not exactly the environment you’d expect to find a ball-playing centre-half and one where many battle-hardened managers would prioritise those with a more rugged approach.

However, Burton was convinced the basics of defending and ability in possession didn’t need to be mutually exclusive.

He felt the modern centre-back would be required to do both, but that’s because he wasn’t looking at the lower echelons of the Championship for inspiration.

“I’d just met my wife and I’d started watching Barcelona at the time and I thought, that’s a great style of football,” he says of the all-conquering side Pep Guardiola built at the Nou Camp.

“I said to Ronnie Branson [Barnsley Academy Manager] we need to change all the way through the academy.

“This was before John got to 18, so we only saw the fruits of it by continuing through the years and by 18 he was used to playing that way.

“We really hit home every day about possession-based football. Possession at all costs. Some days, we wouldn’t play with a centre-forward.

“We had Danny Rose, who is at Northampton now, and he was out injured and we didn’t have another recognised centre-forward so I said we’d play 4-6-0 and the lads just got on with it.

“[We said] just keep the ball and build it. It stopped them going long. There was nobody there so there was no point, you have to play as a team through the thirds.

“And when you’re in the attacking third you’ve got four or five bodies up there because we play possession, and you can go and attack and when you lose it you can win it back because you’ve got bodies around the ball.”

Burton’s description is vintage Guardiola, whilst his decision to play without a recognised striker is also straight out of the Catalan’s hugely admired playbook.

Twelve years after winning his first Champions League title with Barcelona, the principles of his dynasty at his boyhood club have been replicated around the world and, since arriving in Manchester, the 50-year-old has been widely praised for the influence he has had on English football at all levels.

Burton and Ronnie Branson ensured Barnsley were ahead of the curve in that sense, even if the approach wasn’t universally well received in South Yorkshire.

“Barnsley Football Club, I think it's renowned for tough tackling and resilience and hard work,” explains Branson, who was Academy Manager for a decade up until 2016.

“Me and Mark had a good long look at the players who had come through Barnsley’s academy and, in fairness, the record wasn’t that great, so we thought we've got to change things if we're going to be successful.

“At the time, no one else really played the way Barcelona did, particularly in Britain. It’s not that unusual now, especially in academy development football, a lot of it is around that model, but back then it was a little bit different.

“We got quite a lot of resistance, shall we say, from the hierarchy at Barnsley Football Club.

“They thought we were sort of losing their identity and it wouldn't benefit players getting in our first team because the first team didn't play that way.

“We firmly believed in playing that way and we knew it would develop players. [It might] not necessarily get you the results you want initially, but [it would] definitely develop footballers.”

Branson was right in his convictions.

Mason Holgate followed Stones to Everton and is closing in on a century of Premier League appearances, whilst the likes of Danny Rose, Jordan Clark, Rhys Oats and George Marris all progressed to the Tykes first team before forging careers elsewhere in the Football League.

Stones, though, remains the jewel in the crown, and he considers himself fortunate to have started his career under such forward thinking coaches.

“I think the foundations were set when I was coming through the academy at Barnsley,” he says as he considers his playing style.

“I had great coaches there, who had the philosophy of trying to play the Barcelona way, how it was 10 years ago, when they started off this new revelation of football.

“I was very lucky to have them as coaches and I love them as individuals. We had a great squad for our age group, which was quite technically gifted compared to some other groups at that time.

“They wanted to implement this style of play and could see football was changing and it worked for us.

“They gave us so much confidence. They knew that we were going to make mistakes. As kids trying to play this style of play is never easy, and the way that they got it across to us and trained on it has only done me good in my career and that’s where it started.

“Trying to play out from the back and showing yourself that you’re able to do that style of play and play in that way gives you a lot of confidence as a young kid.

“Sometimes you’re playing against older lads, stronger and more physical, but being able to be more tactically aware from the training we did with Ronnie and Mark only stood us in good stead.

“We beat a lot of teams that we weren’t meant to beat at the time because of how we played.”

The environment Branson and Burton describe seems the ideal setting for a player who would go onto to play for Guardiola and Stones has fond memories of his time at his boyhood club.

Having grown up in Penistone, eight miles from Barnsley’s Oakwell Stadium, he joined the Tykes’ system at the age of seven and the glowing recollections of his two former coaches are reciprocated by the man himself.

Playing for Barnsley allowed Stones to live out his childhood dream and he is of no doubt that it provided him with the perfect grounding for a career in the game.

“It’s all I knew from seven,” he explains.

“Two times a week, my mum and dad would take me to the games, to every training session and I was with my friends, friends that I was lucky enough to play with until I was 18 when I left, and I had a strong bond with them.

“They have to take some credit as well. It’s the people who you surround yourself with and play with and that’s who has made me who I am today.

“I loved it at Barnsley in my hometown and it was a dream for me to even get to the first team never mind play for them.

“I wouldn’t change the journey or my path from Barnsley and I’d go back and do it again if I could.”

If it sounds like a match made in heaven, that’s because it was.

Whilst the powers that be at Barnsley had concerns as to how Branson and Burton’s Catalan inspired football might transpire in a gritty town in the north of England, Stones did not.

The local lad was perfectly suited to the philosophy Branson and Burton were trying to implement.

His ability was obvious and, with his willingness to adapt and an understanding of the game which belied his years, it was a potent combination.

Crucially, however, Stones also had trust. Trust that what his coaches were asking him to do was not only right for the team, but right for him.

“John really bought into the Barcelona type of football and understood it from a young age,” Branson explains.

“He could work out how to create space and how to make space.

“In development football you can stop players and say: ‘You're on the ball, your head's up, what's the best pass?’

“Some players just instantly know that pass, that if I can execute it, that's the pass that’s going to cause problems.

“John was that type of player to almost know instinctively, when to pass, how to pass and the weight of pass. There wasn’t a lot of coaching in that sense.

“He sort of picked things up quite easily. Some players wouldn’t pass it because they think if it breaks down, I’m under the cosh. John realised straight away that good passing is worth its weight in gold.

“He made mistakes when he was younger, of course he did. Things didn't always come off. But he persevered and he always wanted to get better and improve and listen.

“He’s a brave player. Some people don’t realise that. Even now, people might misunderstand what John actually does, but he is a very brave player, because some of the passes that he raps in now to players split defences in half.”

Bravery is word which crops up repeatedly with Stones.

You need a certain level of confidence to play the game the way he does, to be willing to receive the ball in dangerous areas, to make passes when the margin for error is slim to none and to carry the ball out of defence into midfield.

It is an area of the game in which the defender thrives and to understand why, you need only to listen to Burton, who felt it vital that the teenager’s courage was encouraged.

“It was basically how he took information on,” he says when reflecting on what made the young Stones special.

“How he grasped the idea that it was going to be difficult playing at the back in my teams. I made it really uncomfortable because he wasn’t going to launch it up front or pump a long ball down the line, so he had to find a way out.

“And if he made mistakes then we weren’t going to have a go. He would just have to deal with it so he had to show how best he could deal with it.

“He would drop his shoulder in really tight situations, and we were like, YEAH! But a couple of times he slipped, they got in and I said just keep doing what you’re doing, just wear better studs!

“With John, there was a lot of natural ability. You test players like that.

“We gave him that licence and the way he stepped in at under-18s, he was like an absolute Rolls Royce. He’d gallop and glide along the ground. Did it always come off? No. Did we always encourage it? Of course, we did.

“It was tough for him because it was a tough style to play and it is easy to knock it.

“People can say ‘it’s false football you’re playing’. It’s not. It’s development football and they’re getting better on the ball.

“Did I envisage John would play for Manchester City, who are like the Barcelona of England? Probably not, but I geared him up towards a game that was changing.”

Burton reaped the rewards of his approach, not only in terms of player development, but also with performance.

Stones’ youth team punched above their weight, getting results against the likes of Liverpool and Fulham, whilst one of their more memorable displays saw them claim a 2-1 victory away at Arsenal.

The Gunners’ carpet like pitch was a world away from Barnsley’s facilities and Burton can still remember his players taking photographs before the game against a side boasting some of the best young talent in the country.

It was deemed a significant test, but Stones proved he was more than at home in such company, providing an assist on a day which highlighted that the next step was in sight.

“Prior to moving to Barnsley, we were made aware of John Stones’ ability,” explains Keith Hill, who gave the defender his senior debut.

“As soon as we got to the club, we integrated him into the first team, and we knew straight away what an outstanding character he was.

“For somebody so tender in age, he was a leader, very vocal on the pitch. He definitely had the strength of character to deliver a manager's plans and we knew straight away he would progress through the football pyramid.”

Hill was appointed Barnsley boss in June 2011 and handed a 17-year-old Stones his debut as a substitute in a 4-0 Championship defeat to Reading the following March.

The defender would make another appearance from the bench in a 0-0 draw with Brighton and Hove Albion on the final day of the 2011-12 season and by the start of the new campaign, he was firmly in the manager’s first team plans.

During his time at Rochdale, Hill had earned a reputation for giving young players an opportunity and whilst he feels his willingness to do so may have aided Stones, he had no doubt about the player’s ability to perform in the unforgiving world of the Championship.

“I think it helped him that I was manager of Barnsley,” he adds.

“I'm not afraid to play young players if I feel as though they're good enough. I will guard those players. I'll protect those players while they're making mistakes, while they're being introduced into cutthroat environments.

“I think that definitely helped John. I think he'd agree with that. Many managers tend to ignore the kids because it's all about self-preservation, but he performed brilliantly for me.

“As a management team, me and David Flitcroft wanted to pass the ball. Regardless of position, you need to be able to pass the ball. You need to be able to handle the ball and John could handle the ball regardless of position.

“He could play as a defensive midfielder, a central defender, right-back or left-back. He was very adaptable, but he was an educated football player.

“It was his hometown club, but we had no hesitation at playing him and we probably played him and led him into being a centre-half by playing him right-back.

“There were times when I felt it was necessary to take him out of the pressure cooker environments, but he learned while he wasn't playing as well and then we'd throw him back in.

“He is a very grounded character, somebody who does want to learn.

“It doesn't matter for me if I was managing Rochdale, Barnsley or Barcelona, for example, the type of character and player that John Stones is, he can't be ignored regardless of the stature of the football club.”

It is a sign of Hill’s trust in the youngster that he continued to play him in a side struggling in the Championship.

Barnsley won just five of their opening 24 games in the 2012-13 season, which led to the manager’s sacking a month before Stones’ January departure to Everton.

The defender made 26 appearances in his breakthrough season and, whilst it was a steep learning curve, he feels the exposure to men’s football at such an early age was invaluable for his development.

“I was lucky enough to play in the Championship at the time and I got into the team under Keith Hill and they gave us a chance,” he explains.

“They saw something in me and I was very fortunate to play in a great league. I think sometimes the Championship can get spoken down a bit and it’s so difficult.

“I remember my first game in a very hostile environment at Millwall.

“I was playing right-back then got moved to left-side centre half, which I’d never done, against Chris Wood, who’s a big hold-up striker and very good at what he does.

“I was aggressive against him, tried to use my brain as I was never going to out-muscle him off the ball, but I don’t think Millwall got a sniff after that.

“Chris Dagnall, who was our striker at the time, went on and scored a late winner, chipped it over the keeper and that was it, 2-1.

“It was another special day because another player that I played with, Bobby Hassell, a club legend at Barnsley, coached me through the game.

“I was getting quite angry in the game, maybe too aggressive at times and he just said: ‘Calm yourself down, make sure you just keep playing and keep showing for the ball,’ and that’s what I did.

“That was another point in my game where I realised I could do it against the guys that were stronger than me and more physically robust. I learnt I had to use my head more than my body.”

An ability to quickly learn from experiences may go someway to explaining why, talent aside, Stones was fast-tracked into Barnsley’s senior set-up.

Speak to anyone who worked with him in those early years and they will tell you his capacity for taking on new information set him apart from his peers.

It was something which stood out to Paul Heckingbottom, who began his coaching career at the Tykes’ academy.

Now in charge of Sheffield United’s Under-23s, the 44-year-old was brought in as Stones was on the verge of making the jump to the first team and was instantly impressed with his composure and his unflappable temperament.

“There was a game at Oakwell, I remember him getting under the ball and being taken out of the game with one pass,” he recalls.

“He was upset with himself, you could see it, and more or less the exact scenario happened two minutes later. He adjusted his position, picked up the ball and came away with the ball.

“He’d not had any time to be spoken to about it. He’d just figured that positioning out himself and dealt with it.

“Those are the moments when you are looking as a coach when you think he’s got it – regardless of performance – the ability to make good decisions and learn from them.

“When you are looking at it, not as a fan but as a football coach, it’s instances of games where they are showing signs they can cope with what’s in front of them, or they can cope with even more, that stand out.

“He's a down to earth lad and I think that comes across as well. He can deal with mistakes.

“While it does bother him and it would bother anyone, he can reframe it in a way where he says it’s been, it's gone and then the next moment is all that matters.

“I'd say that's his real good strength and it's been really apparent in his development. Then, when he's got to the top level, he's been able to go again and progress again.”

It was at Everton where Stones got his first experience of top-level football, after a deadline day move in January 2013.

He was the Toffees’ only signing in that window and for the young man from Barnsley it was a significant step up as he swapped battling it out at the foot of the Championship for a side with aspirations of European football.

When he arrived, David Moyes’ side had lost just three times in the league that season and had a backline which included England internationals Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines, as well as the hugely experienced former City man, Sylvain Distin.

It could have been a daunting scenario for a teenager who was leaving home for the first time, but there was no apprehension heading into his new surroundings.

“There was no fear, I wanted to go and I got to Everton and I was in the reserve squad and I was a bit thrown back to be honest,” says Stones.

“I went from playing men’s football to playing against kids again and it was strange. That was difficult mentally for me, from going against such physical guys to kind of taking a step back almost.

“I thought I should be pushing to play in the first team.

“Then David Moyes left and went to Manchester United, and Roberto Martinez came in and after that period of six months I came back after pre-season from the Under-20 World Cup and I was looking back thinking, I was nowhere near ready to play in the Premier League.

“I was so stupid in thinking I was going to be ready, but that’s a kind of fearless side of me I suppose, and a bit of naivety.

“But, that period was so good for me. It just hit me, I knew I wasn’t ready, physically, tactically, everything.

“It was a great decision by David Moyes and his staff, what they did with me, and then Roberto Martinez came in and it took off from there.”

You could argue Stones was always destined to flourish under Martinez.

The Spaniard had tried to sign him whilst in charge of Wigan Athletic only to be thwarted by Everton’s late bid, but that had done nothing to diminish his impression of the Barnsley man.

After seeing no first team football during his first seven months on Merseyside, Martinez handed Stones his debut in a League Cup win over Stevenage Borough three games into his second season and two weeks later he got his first Premier League start in a memorable 1-0 win over Chelsea.

Stones would play 26 times in his first full campaign, becoming a firm fixture in a side that finished fifth and a new five-year contract signed before the start of the 2014-15 season highlighted how well he had acclimatised to life in the top tier.

“Roberto came in and put a lot of faith in me and played me in pre-season and I kicked on from there,” adds the defender.

“Then I felt ready and that was a big difference as well. I went into training when I first got there and I thought I felt ready, thought I was good enough.

“I wasn’t arrogant about any of it. I obviously got my head down and tried to work hard as I was training for the first team.

“He wanted me at Wigan, so I kind of turned him down. They were in a difficult position fighting relegation and it was a difficult decision for me at 18.

“I drove up by myself to Liverpool and I was waiting for the call on deadline day.  Wigan were trying to sort out things with my representatives at the time and then I get a call later on saying Everton want you.

“I knew straight away that it just felt right, and I went there and said thanks to Roberto and we left it in a good way.

“I've always had a lot of respect for him and it worked out well because he got the job and I read that a few months after that he would’ve brought me to Everton as well.

“I got there and wanted to get my head down and show him what I could do and that I’m willing to improve and try and take everything in, because obviously I was new to the Premier League.

“That season I made about 20 odd games overall and I was so happy with that because in my first season I played in some big games and learnt so much.

“He just had the faith in me and took his time to work on little things and brought me in when I’d done things wrong. It was a great period for me.”

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For all Stones kicked on at Everton, it was also the first time he experienced real scrutiny of his game.

Martinez was unable to replicate the superb form of his debut campaign in the two seasons that followed, when City’s No.5 played 69 times.

The downturn in performances reached a head in 2015-16, which included a run of one win in 10 in the league and saw only relegated Bournemouth and Aston Villa concede more goals at home.

Stones was not immune from criticism at Goodison Park, even gesturing to the crowd to calm down on one occasion when they expressed frustration with his decision to play his way out of trouble with a Cruyff turn in his own area during a draw with Tottenham Hotspur.

But Martinez’s belief never wavered.

He declared the centre-back had the potential to be one of England’s greatest ever players on the eve of a Carabao Cup semi-final defeat to City in January 2016, and encouraged both Stones and his fellow defenders to continue their ball-playing style even as pressure mounted.

It led some to question whether Stones’ defensive capabilities came second to his ability in possession, but those who have first-hand experience of working with him have always thought otherwise.

“John can defend, make no mistake about it,” says Burton.

“He can head a ball. He can defend properly. He’s just got grace and talent and when he gets on the ball, he can keep it and if he’s in trouble he’ll get out of trouble. He’s got that ability.

“He is a defender and people used to say to me about how good he is in possession. I always broke in and said: ‘that kid can defend a box’.

“He can get his head on things in both boxes. He’s a tough kid. He likes a tackle, but it’s just because he’s got that grace.

“He’s a polished defender who can play as well. They can do both. They say: ‘you can only do one or the other’. No, you can do both and he can do both. And he’s just as good at both as well.

“All the flack he used to get, I thought it was absolute rubbish. They were just trying to pick on a kid who was excelling, who’s a little bit different.  

“He’s a ball playing centre-half. They ain't had a centre-half like John and it were a little bit alien, so they said we’re going to knock him down every time.

“I just thought wait till they see the best of him because he’ll come out of the rough patch, which he has.”

Heckingbottom, who played more than 400 games as a defender in the three tiers of the Football League, is in agreement.

In Stones, he sees someone who has always loved the rudimentary elements of defending, though he acknowledges he has taken that side of his game to a new level in recent seasons.

“I'd say his defending has come on a hell of a lot in terms of the decisions he makes,” he adds.

“He's always had the desire to defend, but maybe now he's gone and put that right up there in terms of how good a defender he wants to be as well as a ball-playing defender.

“You want him to be able to do everything, but it's a process you have to go through and learn and develop it.

“It's the people and the pundits who I've seen praise him for taking the risks and how good it looks when it comes off that are the first to jump on his back when it's not and you can't have it both ways.

“If you want to be the complete centre-back, if you like and be the one who steps out with the ball, breaks the lines with the pass, receives the ball under pressure but then always makes the right decision, you have to make the errors to be able to learn and come out the other side.”

Like Martinez, Guardiola has defended Stones in the media when he has felt it necessary.

In one memorable press conference, he declared the defender had more personality than anyone else in the room, highlighting the admiration he had for the courage which characterises the England international’s game.

For Hill, it was a source of frustration that questions were asked of a player for whom defending was at the front and centre of his game.

“First and foremost, he's a good defender,” declares the 53-year-old.

“One of the strategies at City, with respect to stopping their opponents attacking, is possession. It's not negative possession, it's creative possession.

“John is a very good passer. You could play him in central midfield and he would still be creative in his passing ability, but he's still of a defensive mind.

“John's passing stats are not only defensive. They're also creative and it's a great balance.

“He knows himself through his learning, through his teachers and through his manager that his main responsibility is defend in possession and be in a position when they haven't got possession to defend, and he's got the balance right.

“One of my biggest hatreds of modern-day football over the last few years was the amount of abuse and critical analysis on John Stones.

“I think he was being hung out to dry and I thought it was a sad indictment of pundits.

“[He was] an easy target, rather than looking at the bravery of the way that John plays, under extreme pressure from supporters, his own team-mates, himself and the demand for a result while playing with that style.

“If you were to ratio it out, he was in positive equity by a massive margin and I didn't like some of the criticism he was receiving because he's one of the bravest football players to play in that position in the world.”

That word bravery, again.

On the field, it is what makes him such a unique option as an English centre-half and there is a sense that his development has been aided by the fact he has always played for managers who appreciate the technical side of his game.

“He’s had a host of managers and it’s like a good fit,” says Burton.

“It has to be a good fit with a coach and a player to get the best out of them, that raw talent he’s got. Keith Hill at Barnsley played a really good brand of football so Stonesy fitted into that as well.

“Then he went with Roberto Martinez, a really good manager and then the best one in the world, Pep, who’s just a perfect fit.”

Adds Heckingbottom: “He went to Everton which is another footballing team, which encouraged him to still be brave and no one's tried to coax that out of him.”.

“He's at another footballing team now in City. They've embraced what he can do and then built on everything else as well to make him an even better player.

“So, whilst a lot of it is down to John and what he has, the little steps up in his career have all been really good for him.”

It is impossible to argue with that train of thought.

Those little steps Heckingbottom speaks of have taken the 27-year-old from Barnsley, his Barcelona inspired boyhood club, to City, the club he has also grown to love.

It has been quite the journey, but he wouldn’t do anything differently.

“I feel very proud to have played for Barnsley and made the steps through to coming into this wonderful club,” he concludes.

“I’m very fortunate to have had a lot of good people around me.

“I think keeping your feet on the ground and realising what situations you are in, good or bad and how can you get the best out of that all comes from my upbringing and the people that I’ve had around me.

“I wouldn’t change that for the world.”