FORMER Barnsley defender John Stones is looking forward to lining up in an England shirt for the second time in five days after going from lynchpin to bench-warmer at Manchester City.
Stones started all but two of City’s first 18 games of the season across every competition, but he has since faded from view after his momentum was stalled by a hamstring injury in November.
Amid stiff competition from fellow centre-backs Nicolas Otamendi, Vincent Kompany and January signing Aymeric Laporte, Stones last started a Premier League game for the runaway table-toppers on January 20.
He was also overlooked for the final of the Carabao Cup, watching from the sidelines as City defeated Arsenal 3-0, and may face a light workload between now and the World Cup.
But the 23-year-old’s place at the heart of the national side seems unlikely to be affected and he looks set to follow up 90 minutes in Friday’s 1-0 win over Holland with another outing against Italy tomorrow.
“I’ve had a lot of time out to be fair,” he said. “It’s difficult. Every player wants to play week-in, week-out, but I’ve had games here and there.
I’ve been fighting and that’s all you can do: train hard, keep working hard and when your chance comes you’ve got to take it and that’s what I’ve done, stayed positive.John Stones
“I’ve been fighting and that’s all you can do: train hard, keep working hard and when your chance comes you’ve got to take it and that’s what I’ve done, stayed positive.
“I’ve had the players’ backing and the manager’s backing. It’s one of those things where the team’s winning games and playing well and you can’t get back in just like that.”
Searching hard for good news, he added: “It’s tough, but I’ve got my first (League Cup) medal so I can’t complain.”
While City manager Pep Guardiola has found others to take care of business at the back, England manager Gareth Southgate is not likely to find a more natural ball-playing defender around which to build his back three.
“Gareth has picked me this time and I’ve just got to take my chance when I get out on the pitch,” he said.
“Hopefully on Tuesday we can go again. I was enjoying my football and I’ve said many times when you are enjoying it you have nothing to worry about.
“I felt sharp and back to myself (against Holland) and I want to build on that.”
Meanwhile, another former Barnsley player, Jack Butland is thriving on the “intense” competition between England’s goalkeepers and insists there will be no bad blood when Southgate finally names his World Cup No 1.
The Stoke player is set to start against Italy and needs to keep pace with Everton’s rising star Jordan Pickford, who made it two clean sheets from two appearances during Friday’s win in Holland.
Lingering in the background is long-serving first-choice Joe Hart, while uncapped Burnley man Nick Pope has also been training with the squad for the first time.
Southgate’s reluctance to nominate his preferred candidate with just three more friendlies before heading to Russia has invited much debate, particularly among those who remember the less-than-stellar results of uncertainty between Rob Green and David James in build-up to the 2010 tournament.
But Butland claims the internal battle only serves to drive up standards across the board.
“It’s a good thing isn’t it, having competition? I enjoy it,” he said.
“Training between all of us is extremely intense. Obviously it’s one we’re all trying to take for ourselves, but ultimately whoever deserves it, whoever the manager feels, will get it and we’re all trying to do our bit to make sure it’s us.
“The manager will make his decision when he’s ready, until that time and even beyond that time we’ll all be battling to show who is best. I think that’s a great way to go into a World Cup. The fact not knowing who it is just yet shows the competition is great and whoever it will be is going to be coming off a battle, which is what we want.”
On the mood of friendly rivalry at play within the goalkeeper’s union, Butland added: “It’s a great group and we back each other – whoever it’s been in the team everyone has always supported them.
“Ultimately that’s how you become a winning team and become successful. It’s not by turning your head at people or being a bad egg, that doesn’t work for anyone.”
Three Lions boss Southgate has much to ponder: Page 4.