When injuries and a struggle to establish himself as a starter prompted doubts about the future of England defender John Stones at Manchester City in 2018, his manager, Pep Guardiola, issued a stirring statement that made it clear he backed the defender.
“I don’t know how long I will be here in Manchester but as long as I’m here, John Stones will be with us,” he said.
True to his word, Guardiola has kept faith with Stones through good times and bad, irrespective of mistakes or magnificence. When there has been criticism of the player, doubts about his quality, or speculation in the summer of 2020 that he would be sold, his manager has often cited the ball-playing center-back’s character and courage.
“It was hard,” Stones admitted during an exclusive interview with Arab News. “I didn’t want to leave City, first and foremost, and I didn’t want to give up.
“I’ve always been a fighter, from a young age when I had setbacks at age groups, when they said I was too small. I wanted to stay true to myself and show, not to anyone in particular but to myself, that I could do it. I believe I am here for a reason and I am good enough.
“All that seems a while ago now but I’m really proud of myself for what I did and what I’m doing now. I’m trying to go from strength to strength. I want to achieve everything I can, to win trophies and make history.”
In adversity, 28-year-old Stones has become stronger, to take advantage of a second chance and fulfill the ambitions he had growing up as a youngster in Barnsley, South Yorkshire.
He left his hometown club in 2013 to join Everton, then signed for City three years later for £47.5 million ($59 million). He is the club’s third-longest-serving player, after Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan.
As he played a key role in securing the club’s haul of trophies over the years, including four Premier League triumphs in the past five seasons, Stones forged a firm bond with the fans, who have supported him through the difficult times.
This was emphasized again when he left the field during the recent 7-0 win over RB Leipzig that earned City a Champions League quarter-final clash with Bayern Munich. The game marked his Etihad return after a six-week absence with a hamstring injury.
“I think the fans have always had a love-love relationship with me — I can’t thank them enough,” he said. “The ovation I got against Leipzig when I was coming off the pitch, it touches my heart, it really does.
“I hope they appreciate that I appreciate them, that I always give everything and fight right until the end. This is home for me now and has been for seven years, and I’d love to play here for as long as I can. I would love to finish at 40 here, if I could.”
Stones chuckled at the thought of that prospect but he is clearly in a good place. Now a first choice for club and country — even playing impressively at right-back for City — he has set himself fresh targets for both as he looks to build a playing career to remember.
“I set my goal for England at 50 caps and didn’t think I was going to get to that when I wasn’t in the squads and I was on 42,” he said.
“Now I’m on 67 and my next goal is to get 100. I’ve set the bar high, but why not? I think it’s achievable and it’s down to me. I’ve come so close with England as well and I’d love to win something for my nation.”
After the disappointment of losing in the Euro 2020 final to Italy, Stones helped England win their opening two qualifiers for next year’s tournament in Germany, against Roberto Mancini’s defending champions and Ukraine.
But his focus is now back on the Premier League, with City hosting rivals Liverpool on Saturday at the Etihad. For the past five seasons this encounter has been pivotal to the outcome of the title race. While sixth-placed Liverpool might not be challengers for top spot this time, they could still upset second-placed City’s bid to cut Arsenal’s eight-point lead at the top.
But, in the same way that Stones has demonstrated his personal fighting spirit, he said City will continue to do the same as a team, this season and beyond, as they look to surpass the achievements of the game’s legendary club sides.
A third successive top-flight title in this campaign would see Guardiola’s side match the feats of Huddersfield Town, Liverpool and Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson’s United players achieved it twice, from 1999-2001 and 2007-2009, and remain the only club to have done it in the Premier League era.
“I think we can achieve whatever we want,” said Stones. “We have got the ability, we have got the chemistry together, and we all want the same thing as well: To be successful.
“My aim is to win the Premier League again, and to make history and win the Champions League for everyone. We definitely want to be remembered among the great teams of the past.”