While many players resent this international break, with Kevin De Bruyne the most vocal, one of the Belgian’s Manchester City teammates just can’t feel the same way. That is because it wasn’t that long ago that John Stones felt he would never play for England again. The centre-half was on 39 caps in November 2019, but it stayed that way until March 2021. That was largely down to the fact he wasn’t playing much football at all under club manager Pep Guardiola.
“I had a dream as a kid, trying to get 50 caps for England and I have made that come true but I didn’t think I would,” Stones explains. “I was not playing and I never thought I would get that opportunity again.
“I was not playing at City and you have to be playing and playing well to get called up. I did not know if I would get called back up and I used that as a kind of motivation to get back and it was big. It wasn’t switching mentality, but realising what I can do and what I should be doing to be here.
“I think the 50-cap [dream] was when I made my debut for England. I never thought that would happen but you set yourself a target and it rolls on. That big setback, I thought ‘is it going to happen again?’
“You do doubt yourself. Everyone doubts themselves in certain situations when things are not going well. I had to get out of that mentality and try and get back so when I made it made it even more special.”
Stones admits he began to read books on psychology, picking up one particular point on how players should not set caps as they can become limits.
“Your target should be to get as many as you can and have that mindset.”
It is all why Stones is one player who is not complaining about the physical toll of these four Nations League games. That isn’t just a line as he sits beside the manager for the big press conference promoting the Germany game in Munich, it is something he goes into detail on when sitting down with the press afterwards.
“I found it difficult being out of the team for whatever reasons they were… my mentality was that I would never let them pass up again and I would give everything to be back here. Not just for the football but also the environment that we have created for the guys we are with.
“I cannot switch off. I suppose I can only say from my point of view… so for me, whatever games we have got I am always extremely proud to be called up for one and playing for England.
“I don’t know what Kevin said but he has got a different view to this kind of schedule to me but I love playing for England and I love playing here and I will try to be as long as I can.”
A factor in it is of course that Stones also played less football this season. There was something of an irony to that recent history of being out of the team, given that Guardiola then had to almost rush him back from a hamstring injury for the Champions League semi-final with Real Madrid. City had an injury crisis in defence, with Ruben Dias struggling. Stones of course stepped up, as he also spoke of how the team refused to let that elimination bring them down. He believes it was felt in the decisive comeback to beat Aston Villa 3-2 in the last few minutes of the season.
“It was a difficult one. I wasn’t fully ready for the home leg against Madrid. We made the decision together – me, the doctors and manager – and I gave it a go. We knew the risks. That was frustrating. But I was excited to get back as soon as possible and be there to fight because obviously Ruben was injured as well. And then coming back in for the last game was great.
“I felt great again and that obviously didn’t go as smooth as possible or as smooth as we wanted it to. But what an ending to the season. I enjoyed the season a lot. A lot of learning. I know I keep going on about learning but it’s the only way that I can reflect on me personally and how I can move forward. Difficult going out of the Champions League, which kind of paused things a lot within ourselves.
“The flight back after the game, we had been in a good position. We’ve not had many big set-backs like that or had to deal with many and again that showed our character and made our winning mentality even stronger to go and win the Premier League. We left it late, that’s all I can say!”
It was another City teammate that put the importance of international football – and, really, just being able to play – in even greater context. Stones has naturally been struck by Oleksandr Zinchenko’s response to the invasion of Ukraine. He spoke to his teammate after their 2-1 win over Scotland – although has naturally left him be after the heartbreaking elimination to Wales on Sunday.
“What they have done as a team and knowing Zinchenko as a person is absolutely incredible to play on and do as well as they did in the circumstances.
“I spoke to him after the game and wished him all the best. He was in good spirits but he won’t be now. I think from knowing how he speaks about his team it has been a difficult time. I am sure you have seen him do charity stuff in Manchester.”
Less seriously, but still impactful for the subject, Stones expressed solidarity with his international defensive partner Harry Maguire. The Manchester United centre-half has had a difficult individual season, but Stones only speaks positively about the 29-year-old.
“I used to play against Harry as a kid and I knew his quality then. I think he was the age group older than me but I got the opportunity to play against him and it took quite a few years to be able to play with him here.
I think we hit off straight away, he is an incredible person off the pitch, first and foremost, and an incredible partner and player to play with on the pitch. So I hope we can keep playing together and building this partnership, whoever it may be, in a back three or back four.
“We know that we can improve as individuals and me and Harry are always talking about when we do play together what opposition we’re up against, what kind of striker we’re up against and how we can build up better with the ball, how we can defend better, what decisions to make if people run in behind and I think that’s the beauty of it – how he speaks about the game and speaks about his ideas or thoughts.
“It’s not always easy and we do argue on the pitch sometimes but I think, with our relationship, that’s the right thing to do sometimes.
“If I can’t take a dig off him on a pitch and if he can’t do off me then I don’t think we should be playing together. That sums it up really.
“I think some of the criticism that I’ve seen personally and over this season has been harsh.
“I don’t want to get into that but I think how he’s conducted himself on and off the pitch, he should be extremely proud of that and all I can say is, I enjoy playing with Harry and I hope that we can do for many more years to come.”
It all means Stones feels he can’t take weeks like this for granted.