The 2019 Nations League semi-final was the last time Sheffielders Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire played alongside Barnsley-born John Stones and it did not end well.
But the March 2021 World Cup qualifiers could go down as England’s redemption games.
Perhaps not against San Marino tomorrow, when manager Gareth Southgate may look to play a slightly watered-down side mindful of the palpitations three matches in six days will be causing club managers and could anyway revert to a back four given the quality of opposition, but soon the three Broad Acres amigos look set to wear the Three Lions again.
Southgate’s reaction to the 3-1 defeat to the Netherlands back in 2019 felt like a changing of the guard. It was Stones sloppily losing possession in extra-time which led to his Manchester City team-mate Walker putting through his own net.
The back three had already been disbanded in favour of a more attacking shape, now it was broken up.
“I have got to be there to support John because he’s going to get criticism after tonight,” said the Harrogate-based manager.
He has not picked Stones since.
A substitute in the third-place play-off, Walker was overlooked for the whole of the next season.
Southgate, though, has shown himself a manager not beholden to stubbornness.
Despite a plethora of outrageously-talented right-backs, when he decided it was time to dust off three central defenders at the start of this season, Walker was quickly back in the fold, a red card on his return, in Iceland, not held against him, just as the alleged indiscretions which saw Maguire spend part of his summer holiday in a Greek police cell and his own red card against Denmark in October, have not counted against him.
In fairness to Southgate, it would have been hard to stand by Stones as he slid so dramatically down the Manchester City pecking order but this season he has built a partnership with Ruben Dias in a back four whose record has been frankly unbelievable.
City have lost only one of the 22 games Stones has started this season, conceding just four times.
As in 2018, Stones’s ability on the ball takes away the somewhat functional look to England’s defensive unit in possession that has been an unwanted feature of too many of this season’s laboured performances.
With Walker’s pace, Stones’s passing and Maguire’s aerial ability, the back three again looks about as balanced as it can do without a left-footer, and they come with an in-built understanding and experience of some of the biggest tests international football has to offer.
Stones’s recall for the last batch of competitive matches before the European Championships surely makes a place in the squad his to lose in whichever of the games against San Marino (at home tonight), Albania (away on Sunday) and Poland (home, next Wednesday) he appears in.
Not that Stones is the only one picking up an international career that looked as if it might be over.
Jesse Lingard, who had a goal disallowed by VAR against the Netherlands, also appeared to have made his England farewell in the third-place play-off England won on penalties.
If Stones’s recall has been coming as his season gained momentum, Lingard’s has been a late and unexpected burst for the line.
In January, Sheffield United were interested in taking the forward on loan after just two starts and a substitute appearance for Manchester United this season, all in the League Cup.
His form had disappeared off a cliff since the World Cup, and the faith of his managers going with it.
Instead, with the Blades deciding not to make any mid-season signings, pushing manager Chris Wilder closer to the exit door, Lingard was attracted by the bright lights of London, and has responded with five goals in seven appearances on loan at West Ham United.
With Jack Grealish and James Maddison amongst those currently injured but hopeful of being available in the summer, Lingard’s place at the European Championships is far less assured but having seen what Grealish did to cement himself in the plans earlier this season, he is certainly in ideal form to take his chance if he gets it at Wembley tonight, or at any other point over the next week for that matter.
Manchester United’s left-sided defender Luke Shaw is another returned to the fold, uncapped since the 2018 Nations League defeat to Spain, which was only his second appearance since 2015.
Many of the top managers can be extremely stubborn, but Southgate’s willingness to embrace ideas and players who served him well in the past – and this is no Dad’s Army, 30-year-old Walker is comfortably the oldest of the born-again quartet – does him great credit.
“Strong Yorkshire, strong England,” may be a term from the cricketing rather than the footballing arena, but if the Three Lions can have a good European Championships with their White Rose defence back in harness, it may just find itself being borrowed.
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