John Stones says a proven strength in adversity has united the England squad ahead of their World Cup semi-final against Croatia in Moscow tomorrow.
Celebrity endorsements and millionaire wages mask the reality that Stones and the majority of his team-mates had to overcome significant battles to reach the professional game at all.
In the case of Stones it meant being held back and told to prove himself in lower-age teams before he was finally handed his first professional contract with Barnsley in 2011.
Stones said: “I’ve been through some tough patches when I was younger – when I was 14 or 15 I had to play with the age below and it took its toll.
“I had to stick at it but I never gave up and stopped believing in myself.
“People don’t realise – they might see that everything is going in one direction but when you’re younger there’s a lot of things that happen and a lot of adversity to overcome.”
Stones believes the remarkable bond which has been forged within Gareth Southgate’s squad – with the encouragement of the manager – has also proved crucial in defying pre-tournament expectations to reach the last four.
“We’ve worked hard on getting to know each other off the pitch and creating that togetherness and understanding with each other,” added Stones.
“He (Southgate) has been a big part of that and wanting us to spend an extra 10 minutes getting to know each other and creating a bond that you don’t normally get with everyone spending so much time at your club – and for me that’s been a massive factor.
“I’ve been there going out to the pubs to watch England back in the day and it’s surreal to see everyone doing that. We’re putting the smile back on people’s faces and making them feel proud about England again.”
We’ve worked hard on getting to know each other off the pitch and creating that togetherness and understanding with each other.John Stones
Sheffield-born Kyle Walker, who with Stones and fellow Sheffielder Harry Maguire forms an all-Yorkshire backline for England, believes England may never get another opportunity like this.
“It’s probably the best opportunity England might ever have because no disrespect to Croatia but the other side of the draw was a lot more difficult,” he said.
“We have shown character, we’ve shown belief and I think that’s what is going to get us over the line in this game.”