England defender John Stones describes it as a weight off his shoulders to be enjoying his football at Manchester City after a breakdown of communication with Roberto Martinez marred his final season with Everton.
Barnsley-born Stones joined City in a £47.5m deal over the summer, a huge sum that reflects the 22-year-old’s youth, potential and nationality – but not necessarily his recent experiences.
He was part of an under-achieving Toffees side who finished 11th last year and were frequently accused of being defensively disorganised.
Martinez, who was sacked late in May before becoming Belgium’s head coach, did not even consider Stones undroppable, sidelining him on several occasions during February and March.
Stones is clearly loving his early days at the Etihad Stadium, where he has been parachuted straight into Pep Guardiola’s first XI, but he acknowledges times got tough at the end of his spell at Goodison Park.
He stopped short of criticising Martinez directly, but his dissatisfaction is palpable, particularly when discussing his time out of the side – and the apparent lack of explanation he received.
“Since last summer it has been a journey, I suppose... It’s a weight off my shoulders now that I know where I am, settled, and enjoying my football,” Stones said.
“Maybe things weren’t just working out (at Everton). It was a tough period because I was doing everything right, I was being professional, I was carrying myself well. I wanted to do everything right, try to get in the team how everyone should and fight for my place.
“I felt I was doing everything I could and deserved to play and still wasn’t. That’s when I found it hard. It’s probably a question you should have asked the manager at the time because he wasn’t telling me.
“Roberto had his style of play and kind of changed that towards the end of his career at Everton. He changed the whole style of the team and things weren’t working out at that time so you could say it wasn’t the best decision.
“As you know, the gaffer got sacked. It wasn’t enjoyable. We weren’t winning games. When we don’t do that a few games on the trot, it starts to eat away at you, no matter who you are. It was a good test for me. I learned a lot about my football, about myself.
“I felt it was right to move on to work under the best manager, in my eyes.”
Stones feels one of the first lessons he has learned from Guardiola is the value of a good old-fashioned ‘Row Z’ clearance.
Stones is a natural in possession or running the ball out from the back, and looks destined to become a key part of Sam Allardyce’s England.
He has been pencilled in to start ahead of Chris Smalling in tomorrow’s opening World Cup qualifier in Slovakia and has the chance to lock down a regular starting place under the new regime.
But he is also a work in progress, having been dropped by Everton in the latter part of last season with concerns over his judgment.
Learning when to play the ball and when to focus on the basics is key to Stones’s development and he is already sensing an improvement. Asked when he last felt the need to boot the ball into the stands, he only had to look as far back as last weekend’s 3-1 win over West Ham.
“On Sunday I did it quite a few times,” Stones said.
“We can all regroup from putting it in Row Z sometimes. From last season to the start of this season I’m realising when to do it. That’s where I believe I have come on quite a lot as a player. I was doing things before and then afterwards I would think, ‘Why have I done that? Why haven’t I just put it out in Row Z?’. Already I can see a difference in my decision-making.
“I just want to keep improving, keep getting games under my belt. That’s why I moved to City and, in my eyes, the best manager to work with in football. Hopefully he will bring me on leaps and bounds.
“I’ve been taking in a lot of information these last few weeks, trying to figure out how to fit in. But you have to keep improving as a player and as a person because you have to move on in life.”
While Stones’s willingness to engage with his shortcomings is admirable, he is equally keen to point out he is not a newcomer to the ‘dirty’ jobs of defending.
“At the end of the day I’m a defender, and that’s what I want to be known as,” he said.
“I’m a defender first and foremost, getting the blocks in, getting the headers in that people don’t recognise that I do... the dirty stuff, that every defender should do and should be good at.
“The rest of it is an added bonus, where I can play out, start attacks off. But I’m still learning. I know that.”