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Euro 2020: England players have developed a winning mentality with their clubs, says John Stones

The sheer audacity is jaw dropping, the delivery magnificent and the end result ultimately glorious. 

John Stones, just having turned 19 years old, was stepping up to take a penalty. For context, this was his first game for Everton, albeit in a pre-season friendly against Juventus.

Nevertheless, it shows how far English centre-halves have come over the years when it can be reported, as verified by YouTube, that Stones chipped his only penalty Panenka-style over the goalkeeper and into the top corner, just as Antonin Panenka did to win the 1976 Euros for Czechoslovakia.

John Stones says England’s players have developed a winning mentality at club level

Stones, along with Phil Foden, Kyle Walker and Raheem Sterling, won the Premier League

Stones, along with Phil Foden, Kyle Walker and Raheem Sterling, won the Premier League

Stones is coy, laughing, a little embarrassed at the memory, the impudence of youth, trying such a thing on his debut for his new Premier League club in 2013.

‘I felt no emotion going up to take that penalty,’ he says. ‘Probably just so young. I’d done it in training and the manager Roberto Martinez was laughing because I was with goalkeeper Joel Robles at the time. He used to get so angry at me just messing about. But then I remember walking up against Juventus and he said: “Yeah, go on!” He just gave me the nod…’

Stones did admit later that, though he put it in the top corner, he had intended it to go down the middle of the goal and he shanked it. So it will not be coming out on Tuesday against the Germans in the last 16 of these Euros.

When Sergio Aguero failed against Chelsea late last season for Manchester City with his own Panenka, which potentially cost City the game, Stones became convinced that it needed to be retired permanently — though he could of course be bluffing, Manuel Neuer. ‘No,’ he says when asked about another Panenka. ‘After seeing Sergio doing it this season.’

All this chat about the art of penalty taking serves a serious purpose. Back in 1996 and Gareth Southgate’s infamous miss against Germany, now an iconic moment, England just sorted out the penalty takers on the night, with no real batting order having been established. Which is how the England manager, a defender, came to be taking one before better strikers of the ball such as Steve McManaman, Darren Anderton and Paul Ince.

Gareth Southgate¿s infamous miss against Germany has since become an iconic moment

Gareth Southgate’s infamous miss against Germany has since become an iconic moment

Those days are long gone. Perhaps the most detailed body of research on penalty shoot-outs is now housed in the library at St George’s Park, where England train. Under former technical director Dan Ashworth and Southgate, the FA commissioned detailed research into how to best win a shoot-out in the run up to 2018.

Southgate leaves nothing to chance, according to Stones. ‘With how we do it now, we’ve been practising so much: how to prepare yourself for that moment, have a little process that you go through that makes you feel as comfortable as possible, choose your spot. We’ve been practising on keeping that clear focus of what to do if your turn comes up. Ever since Gareth has come in and Steve [Holland], we’ve tried to get to know what the boys like or want to do in those situations.

‘Some boys might want to be left alone. Some boys might be feeling tired and want a little massage. Some people want to see things visually to prepare. We’ve found out what everyone wants and needs and have everything ready if they decide to go down a certain path.

‘Everything will be done before so it’s not like a mad scramble and we look like we’re unprepared, almost. We want to be going into it knowing that we’ve ticked every box. Knowing that when a certain situation comes, no one is panicking, saying: “Oh, do you want to go third?” Everything is set out. You can go into it clear minded, do your process and hopefully do the job.

‘I remember being seventh in the World Cup shoot-out against Colombia, after Eric [Dier, who scored the sixth penalty to win the shoot out]. That was a scary moment. But I was ready because of this process we’ve always talked about.

Stones admitted that he and his England team-mates have been practising penalties 'so much'

Stones admitted that he and his England team-mates have been practising penalties ‘so much’

‘It’s about making you as comfortable as possible in that situation. Because, unless it’s Harry [Kane] or the boys who take penalties for their clubs regularly, it’s a zone we’ve not stepped into before.’

This England team has broken many of the phobias, which bedevilled their predecessors. Winning that first penalty shoot-out since 1996, when England beat Spain in the quarter-finals prior to losing to Germany, was a big hurdle.

Winning knockout games against Colombia and Sweden in 2018 was the first time an England team had achieved such a feat since 2006. Now the bar is raised again and the challenge is to beat a major football nation in a knockout game. Not just any old football nation, but their nemesis, Germany.

‘I’ve said it so many times, but we — and I really — wanted to change the way the nation looks at the team and English football,’ said Stones. ‘We’ve taken massive strides in doing that since 2018 and it’s about doing it again. I don’t think we should put any more pressure on ourselves but there’s a trophy there to be won here that has never been won before and we should be super-excited by that and go in with that fearlessness that we’ve had over these years.

‘New boys have come in and bought into that mindset. It’s exciting times and we should be excited to succeed. When you’re looked at as one of the best teams and best talents, you want to test yourselves against the best teams and that’s the opportunity we’ve got now on Tuesday, to test ourselves and win.

‘The Scotland game we didn’t win, but we’re building a winning mentality. I know it wasn’t probably the best game to watch as an outsider but, for us players, we went out there, we did our job, we didn’t concede in three games, that’s a massive thing in tournament football. That allows the players up top to go out and score the goals and express themselves. But the winning mentality and willingness to win is now coming out.

Dier scored the winning spot-kick in their penalty shootout with Colombia at the World Cup

Dier scored the winning spot-kick in their penalty shootout with Colombia at the World Cup

This England team has broken many of the phobias, which bedevilled their predecessors

This England team has broken many of the phobias, which bedevilled their predecessors

‘I haven’t seen it as much in previous squads before 2018. There’s a real hunger there which is so natural to everyone. When we come up against Germany on Tuesday, it’s a time to really test ourselves and to show not just Europe, but the world, what a good team we are. We give Germany massive respect as you do any top-class team but we have to go out and show ourselves and implement our game.’

Germany possess their own superstars of the game, World Cup winners such as Thomas Muller, Mats Hummels, Manuel Neuer and Toni Kroos. 

But Stones, now a serial winner with Manchester City along with the likes of Raheem Sterling, Kyle Walker and Phil Foden, is joined in the England squad by recent Champions League winners such as Jordan Henderson, Mason Mount, Ben Chilwell and Reece James and insists that he can sense a change in mentality around the team.

‘When I say about winning mentality, sometimes it’s something you sense out on the pitch. I’ve been lucky enough to play for some incredible teams with some very successful players, who just have this natural edge about them, you just know they’ll do anything to win. And I can start to sense and feel that in our squad. When it’s like that, it starts to spread like wildfire. I think it’s the hunger.

Stones, a serial winner with Man City, is joined in the England squad by  the English contingent of Chelsea's Champions League winners

Stones, a serial winner with Man City, is joined in the England squad by  the English contingent of Chelsea’s Champions League winners

‘Boys have been winning things for their clubs now and they get that hunger for lifting trophies. It is an addiction to doing and we want to bring that here and it’s been great to be a part of so far and we’re in for the long haul hopefully.’

The defeat by Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-final has sharpened focus, he says. ‘Massively. Once you’ve been in a high-pressure situation or major tournament, you’ve overcome hurdles and know what you need to do to get you through.

‘To get to a semi-final in my first World Cup was something I’m really proud of and I really want to build on and pass that on. I’m trying to give my advice to those who haven’t been in tournament football before. Maybe they have with youth teams but not senior teams.

‘It was a massive learning curve. We had some downs towards the end, getting knocked out by Croatia and losing to Belgium. But we weren’t as ruthless as we should have been but have become more ruthless going forward.

The defeat by Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-final has sharpened focus, Stones says

The defeat by Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-final has sharpened focus, Stones says

‘Time heals those hard parts and the motivation for me, when you have won things and you get so far and don’t do it, it’s a big punch in the teeth that you have got there and not done the business. I don’t want that feeling again. But football’s an unforgiving sport. All I can do is prepare the lads, the younger ones, as best I can. I want them to be fearless like we have been in 2018.’

We will be better able to judge on Tuesday evening, but Stones sounds like a spokesperson for Gen Z, young people without the old hang-ups about Germans and penalties and intently aware that the glass ceiling on England’s performance is just waiting to smashed.

‘That’s one of the things motivating us,’ he said. ‘It’s at the forefront of our minds. No England team has lifted a European Championship trophy before. If we did, it would be history. I don’t want to say we would be legends. We want to do it for ourselves, our families but for us as a nation. We know how privileged we are to play for England and to do it back home or to do it in England would be extra special. We want to make history.’

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