John Stones on coming back from brink at Man City and his insatiable hunger for success

The England defender talks exclusively to 'The National' about fighting back from loss of form and confidence to becoming indispensable for both club and country

John Stones celebrates scoring for Manchester City in their win over Premier League title rivals Arsenal at the Etihad Stadium on April 27, 2023. AFP
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John Stones likes nothing better than his football doing his talking for him and his achievements slipping under the radar.

As the Manchester City star stands on the cusp of a fifth Premier League winners’ medal, a second Champions League final in three years and the chance to post a historic domestic and European treble, there’s still no sign of an ego, rather a pervading sense that there’s still unfinished business.

At 28 – he turns 29 on the final day of the Premier League season when City play at Brentford – he’s morphed into the perfect senior professional as typified by his starring role in the dismantling of Real Madrid at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday night.

The weight of being labelled the “Barnsley Beckenbauer” from a young age is laughed off even as he moves seamlessly from central defender, to right back and higher up the pitch as an inverted defender or auxiliary midfielder with whom even the best struggle to cope.

Currently riding high as City’s Player of the Month and near cult status among the Premier League champions’ fans, Stones is still all about the pursuit of excellence and most of all spending time with his young family – the latest addition to which arrived earlier this year.

It’s not all been plain sailing for the likeable Yorkshireman, who joined City from Everton as – along with Ilkay Gundogan – one of Pep Guardiola’s first signings in August 2016.

Along the way he has had injuries to contend with and a loss of form and confidence that saw him fall out of favour with Guardiola, stalled his England ambitions and led to talk of him moving on from City.

Man City 4 Real Madrid 0: Player ratings

Much soul-searching followed and a return to basics that have now made him indispensable to both club and country.

The good alongside the bad in the last six years has imbued him with a maturity that allows him to be a senior professional and to a greater understanding of what others are going through.

“The lowest point was definitely in 2019. It was difficult, everyone knew and saw what was happening but I still loved coming in and I knew I had to fight and get a place back and earn that trust,” he said.

“I also had to prove things to myself. I wasn’t getting picked at City or for England. I had to go back to basics and look at what I could do to improve. I looked at even the smallest things.

“I looked at what I was doing away from football. I’m now training more, I looked at eating and sleeping habits, and the way I recovered. I looked at everything in a bid to improve and it paid off. I’m still exploring those margins that can help me get better.”

Since that time of reflection, Stones has taken his game and his versatility to new levels bagged more titles and been a lynch-pin in two major tournaments with England.

“The past three years, including this year, I’d say I’ve been quite consistent in my game and progressing all the time,” he added.

“That’s the key. as you are always looking to learn and evolve as a player. I feel as if I have done that. Enjoying it is the main thing. I have enjoyed it here at City since the day I signed.”

A big percentage of that enjoyment is growing as a performer on the pitch where he is currently occupying a hybrid position part-defence and part-midfield.

“This new role comes about because the game has evolved, it is us adapting to other teams and how we feel we can best beat them,” said Stones.

John Stones, left, in action for England against France in the quarter-finals of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. EPA

“It started with different players moving inside from a right back or left back position and we changed that to push full-backs higher and went as a three at the back and then I moved into central-midfield from a centre-half position.

“I’m really enjoying getting on the ball and trying to make things happen. I just want to show my qualities for the team and then defensively when we get back into a different shape play as a centre half.

“I wouldn’t say it's easy to do but what I would say is that the manager makes it easy for us in the respect of how he tells you what he wants from you and what to do. Then it is about trusting yourself and the players around you.

“The manager wouldn’t ask you to do something you can’t do. Pep is really knowledgeable about players’ strengths and weaknesses and what he asks of the players. That’s why all the people who he has brought into the club fit in so well.

“It’s good for me to learn parts of the game from a different perspective as a centre-half learning what a midfielder does and when it's optimal to receive the ball, it gives me a better understanding of how the team ticks.”

Stones thrives on responsibility and being part of a team and though he doesn’t actively seek out being a dressing room influencer he is at a stage where he is adept at using his seniority and employing empathy when and where it’s needed. He is there and available should anyone need a word.

“As players we feed off each other,” he said. “It’s really about guiding youngsters and letting them express themselves as well. I am not one to shout and be a big speaker in the dressing room when it’s not the right time.

“I feel I pick my moments to speak to the guys who need an arm around them or who maybe need a bit of advice. I feel my own experiences mean that I am quite good at knowing the timings of when to approach different personalities.

John Stones with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola after winning the Premier League in 2022. Getty

“Everyone has an expectation of themselves about what is wanted and when they don’t hit that level it can become difficult and you kind of have to see the bigger picture. The ability to do that comes with the experience of going through these things.

“We’ve got incredible talent in our young players at City – Rico Lewis has shown that this season – and it's all about helping them. Why it is so special here is that no matter what age you are or what you’ve done in your career when you are on the training pitch everyone gives everything.

“Everyone is equal. It’s not hierarchical here at all. We are definitely one unit. Everyone is with us for a reason and all the young players that train with the first team are there for a reason – because they have the quality and attributes to be there – and we can all see that.

“To be in our team everyone has to be wanting the ball and willing to do the hard yards without the ball. That’s why we are so special as a team.”

Despite that abundance of talent and how it is sometimes perceived, Stones is adamant that winning is never easy no matter the opponent or the competition.

“Winning trophies doesn’t get easier,” he insisted. “However, what I have learnt from previous years is that the more you win trophies the more you are motivated to win more.

 John Stones scores for Manchester City against Arsenal in their Premier League win at the Etihad Stadium on April 26, 2023. AFP

“There’s nothing like that feeling. There's hunger. The hunger and wanting that winning feeling more and more – that’s why you are a player!

“I think realising and recognising situations and experiences that you’ve been through before makes it more comfortable to be in certain situations at the end of a season. We know how to keep cool heads and then it’s about us delivering.

“There are no easy games at all. We are so good at showing respect to every team we play no matter what competition. I think that is a vital part of our game.

“We are humble enough to know and respect our opponents and then able to go out there and do our job. We know what is expected of us and we know what we are capable of.”

Even now with so much within touching distance, Stones doesn’t let his mind wander or focus slacken.

“While you are still in a season and it’s not done there is a lot to think about so it's not until the end of the season you can look back and ask yourself: ‘Did I give everything I could,’” he said.

“Then if you have won a trophy or trophies you can be proud of yourself and your teammates and what you achieved. Only then can you have a bit of reflection and perspective. And a rest!”

Updated: May 22, 2023, 8:51 AM