England v Italy: John Stones - stick to the gameplan and let’s bring football home

John Stones says he does not dare think how his life will change if he achieves something he could only dream of a month ago, but that England will stay calm as they look to make footballing history at Wembley tomorrow evening.

The Three Lions have never won a European Championship but rather than be intimidated, Barnsley-born Stones is excited about what awaits against Italy.

Only four men alive have won a senior international football tournament with England – Sir Bobby Charlton George Cohen, Sir Geoff Hurst and Roger Hunt from the 1966 World Cup-winning team. Asked what he thought about being in that company, Stones could only reply: “I don’t dare to think.”

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Helped by playing all but one of their matches at Wembley, England have been outstanding in this tournament, growing in stature and confidence.

Final challenge: Gareth Southgate’s message to his England players during this summer’s European Championship has been to stay calm and stick to their gameplan, qualities they will need tomorrow against Italy at Wembley.Picture: getty images
Final challenge: Gareth Southgate’s message to his England players during this summer’s European Championship has been to stay calm and stick to their gameplan, qualities they will need tomorrow against Italy at Wembley.Picture: getty images

“It’s the unknown territory,” said Stones when asked what he was most looking forward to. “Being part of that is something special and something I’m proud of.

“We’ve come so far as a team, made so many big steps and a lot of history. Sunday’s another chance to do that. That’s something that motivates me, excites me and really pushes me on.

“With it being at Wembley as well it’s even more special, something we could have only dreamt of at the start of the tournament.

“We’re here to try and win it and we’ve got this far. I think we’ve just grown and grown throughout the tournament and not put too much pressure on ourselves. We’ve overcome some tough tests over the past few years and learned a lot of things from those games.”

England's manager Gareth Southgate, right, and England's Harry Kane celebrate after winning the Euro 2020 soccer championship semifinal match against Denmark at Wembley. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, Pool)

Stones played in the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup, 2019 Nations League, and Wednesday’s last-four win over Denmark in what is technically the 2020 European Championship.

But despite being happy to talk up the magnitude of the occasion – he could hardly ignore it – Stones says England will follow the lead of their Harrogate-based manager Gareth Southgate and try to go about their business as calmly and routinely as possible.

“It’s approaching the game how we have every other game in this tournament, every game we play as professionals at club level or whatever it might be, and giving everything,” said Stones, who began his career at Barnsley but now plays for Manchester City.

“We all loved the England team growing up as fans and being able to play for them now, we absolutely cherish it. People are saying they love watching us and seeing how we represent the country and that’s something we should be proud of as players.

Harry Maguire and John Stones of England celebrate victory. (Picture: Michael Regan - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

“He (Southgate) has got a unique quality of staying calm in situations and I think it passes through the team. The other day (against Denmark in the semi-final) was the first time we’d been to extra-time (but) no one panicked or got ahead of ourselves. We all stayed calm and stuck to the gameplan and it worked out well for us.

“I don’t think we need to change anything in respect of our preparation, it’s so professional.”

As Stones admits, had this tournament taken place as scheduled last summer he might well not have played but he has shown great mental fortitude to regain his place and be a key part of a defence which has conceded once in six matches.

A Stones error was a big part of England’s Nations League semi-final defeat and he only made one more international appearance in the next 21 months, losing favour at club level in 2019-20.

“All those times have made me who I am now,” he reflected. “I wish there was an easier route but that’s football. In any walk of life you have setbacks and I’ve tried to learn from them and stay positive, stay true to myself.

“On Sunday, if selected, it’s a massive moment for me and my family, especially going through tough times. All the hard work and dedication, all the after-hours things people don’t recognise come to the forefront of my mind and make me realise why I worked so hard to be where I am right now. It’s a proud moment.”

A defence featuring fellow Yorkshiremen Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire, and protected by Kalvin Phillips have been the bedrock of England’s tournament.

“I think we’ve kind of created our own mentality in respect of defending and we’ve got the best defensive record in the competition,” said Stones.

“We learnt from Russia (the 2018 World Cup) and to keep clean sheets and to have that good defensive balance about our game is a key part for us to keep progressing through the tournament and being a winning team.”

Final previews: Pages 2-4