MANAGER Roy Hodgson is so sure that a turbulent few weeks will not affect John Stones that the Everton defender is starting England’s Euro 2016 qualifier in San Marino today.
The trip to the side ranked 193rd in the world will almost certainly bring with it the three points that will guarantee the Three Lions’ place at next summer’s European Championships.
The margin of victory is the only matter of debate, but Hodgson did not want to name his starting line-up a day early and disrespect the hosts – albeit that may be too late after jesting that the country’s cricket team could do a job against them.
The England manager did, though, confirm that former Barnsley defender Stones would start the match just days after the end of the transfer window, when a summer-long saga involving would-be suitors Chelsea was brought to a close for the 21-year-old.
“He’s done exceptionally well, hasn’t he? It’s a fact of life, the transfer window brings about this speculation,” Hodgson said.
“The way he’s handled it at Everton has been quite fantastic.
“He’s been 100 per cent concentrated, focused and motivated to play since he’s been with us.
“It is of no concern to me and won’t affect his play.”
Stones was one of three players Hodgson confirmed would start at the San Marino Stadium, along with in-form Swansea midfielder Jonjo Shelvey and Leicester’s Jamie Vardy.
The latter was last month handed a “substantial fine” and said he will take diversity awareness training after being filmed using racist language in a casino.
“Of course, there are some players in the squad who have evoked a lot of interest from the press and people,” Hodgson said.
“There’s a lot of speculation about whether they’ll play or not, so I can say that Jonjo Shelvey, who has had a brilliant start to the season, will start the game, as will John Stones and Jamie Vardy.
“I give you those three names as starters, but I am not prepared to give any others.”
Hodgson’s squad has a clean bill of health heading into the match, but that may not be the case after the game judging by the state of the pitch.
The San Marino Stadium surface is patchy and dry – to put it kindly – although Hodgson was pleased rather than peeved with it.
“I think they’ve done very well considering that, four or five weeks ago, they’d only just laid the pitch,” Hodgson said. “It was in a pretty parched condition then.
“They’ve done well to get it into the condition it’s in now. As long as it’s watered [today], it’ll be a surface that’s perfectly playable.
“I must congratulate San Marino for the job they’ve done. It could have been a lot worse.”
Hodgson’s suggestion that the England cricket team could do a job against San Marino has not gone down well in the microstate, with those “bad” comments irking head coach Pierangelo Manzaroli.
Anything but three points against the side ranked 193rd in the world would represent the biggest shock in English football history, underlined by the fact San Marino are 100-1 with many bookmakers to win.
The country’s entire population would fit into Derby’s iPro Stadium and Hodgson joked during the summer that England’s Ashes heroes could get a game.
Those comments were made in jest, but Sammarinese head coach Manzaroli was not overly-happy with the perceived lack of respect.
“I know very well Roy Hodgson, and he’s a very good person and well educated,” he said.
“But when we are front of this media, with this exposure, you have to be careful what you say.
“We are much smaller than England, but we deserve respect like any country.
“I think it was a bit too much, too heavy, with what he said. It was very strong. Bad things, that he said.”
Hodgson’s words may rankle but they are unlikely to have any impact on the outcome of today’s game.
Manzaroli says he still respects the England manager “even if he says those kind of things” and is only focused on getting his team of amateurs to play as well as they can.
“[Today’s] match will be very complicated,” the San Marino head coach said. “We have to make a very good game in defence, to be very well organised in every point of view.
“We have to try not to see the enormous gap that exists between England and San Marino.
“It will be a special occasion, a special atmosphere, but the group, we are a professional group.”
Wayne Rooney trained for the final time ahead of his England goal record bid in San Marino.
The Manchester United striker took part in the morning session at St George’s Park before the Three Lions jetted out yesterday afternoon.
Captain Rooney needs just two goals to become England’s all-time leading goalscorer and beat Bobby Charlton’s record of 49.
The 29-year-old has scored 48 goals in 105 caps compared to Charlton, who won the World Cup in 1966 and netted 49 times in 106 appearances.
Rooney has scored in his last five Euro 2016 qualifiers, with England top of Group E having won six out of six.
All 22 players in Roy Hodgson’s squad trained before the match in San Marino, with the team on the brink of qualifying for next year’s tournament in France.
Harry Kane and Theo Walcott are bidding to start with Rooney.