It may seem strange for a Manchester City player to profess idolatry for those who made history with the club’s neighbours and fiercest rivals.
But John Stones simply watched the best to become the best. Among his first footballing heroes was David Beckham, adored at Manchester United and who subsequently starred for Real Madrid and captained England.
“I loved Beckham, how he could score those free kicks,” recalls Stones. “Every kick was a goal.”
But as his own defensive qualities came to the fore – displaying a calm, classy ability on the ball – while coming through the ranks at Barnsley, it was another United and English footballing legend that Stones sought to admire and emulate.
“Early on, there wasn’t anyone I modelled my game on as a defender, but as I started to get older I was watching Rio Ferdinand and liked how he played a lot,” reflects the 22-year-old centre-back, who replaced Ferdinand as the most expensive British defender when City signed him from Everton for £47.5 million (Dh212.3m) in August.
“A great footballer, I’ve spoken to him a few times and he’s told me that we have similarities. It’s great for me to still watch some of his games when they come on the television, the old games, and see how he played and learn.”
And, with Ferdinand among those to laud his “fantastic talent”, Stones is certainly learning quickly. Exuding a confidence belying his age and refreshingly self-effacing, his assured displays have seen him tipped to become the cornerstone of City and England’s defence for years to come.
Before his side’s 1-1 draw with Everton on Saturday, club boss Pep Guardiola even likened him to former Barcelona and Netherlands backline icon Ronald Koeman, now in charge of the Toffees.
“It was really good to hear the gaffer say that,” Stones exclusively told Sport360. “I worked with Ronald at Everton for a few weeks before I came to City and I’ve got a lot of time and respect for what he has achieved and how he works. A great manager – and what a player he was as well.
“I’m trying to be [a ball-playing defender]. It’s what I’ve known since the youth team at Barnsley and just carried on from that, and just to enjoy it.
“Definitely I want to achieve what Ronald did, what Rio did. Everyone wants to be the best they can. It’s not an easy process. People think you go from zero to a 100 games really quick, but there’s ups and downs. It’s a slow process, but one I’m willing to take.”
Under the tutelage of Guardiola, Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets developed into world-beaters at Barcelona.
Stones wants to follow suit, citing the City chief as a major reason why he chose a move to Etihad Stadium despite suitors galore, including Barca, United and Chelsea. “Now I’m working with the best manager in football,” said the Yorkshireman in August.
As we chat, Guardiola interrupts briefly with a farewell gesture. Stones responds with a smile and “ciao”. The affection is obvious, the respect mutual, like that of a mentor and his protege.
Guardiola wants him to go from being gifted to a great, trusting him with a starting spot and constantly offering advice and encouragement from the sidelines in games.
“His English is great and he gets his points across very easily,” adds Stones, who had spent three years at Everton. “He wants to make you better.”
The best in the world
As a youngster, Stones was also an admirer of the Catalan and his all-conquering Barca side. So he admits it will be special when City take on the Spanish champions in tomorrow’s Champions League Group C clash at the Nou Camp. Excited, not daunted, too by the prospect of trying to stop Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.
“It will be massive,” adds Stones. “Watching Barca as a kid, they’re a massive team, top players, a great stadium and it will be big occasion for me, my family and the club.
“It was Messi himself and the style they play that I liked. Obviously, the gaffer used to work there and I was a big fan when he was there and the players he had. Now the new players have come in and they’re an exciting team. It will be great to come face to face with them.
“It doesn’t scare me, no. I think you have to play against the best to see how you can deal with it and it always brings the best out in you as well. I see it as an exciting challenge and one I’m looking forward to – if I’m picked to play of course.
“For me, Messi’s the best player in the world, easily. He’s one of a kind. I think we, as footballers, appreciate it even more when you come up against him and see what he can really do.
“I’ll be looking forward to that challenge. But it’s not just him, it’s everyone in that team. I think Luis Suarez has taken his game to another level since he was at Liverpool.
“You can’t let your game slip or your focus. It’s something I’m working on, but that comes with age and games as well, experience. It takes time to learn the game and I’m still learning. There’s plenty more to come.
“I think every game is tough, especially in the Premier League. You saw that against Everton, at Tottenham when we lost, there are no easy games.
“So it’s not just about facing Barcelona to improve your game, but about playing at this level.
“I don’t feel more pressure now, not at all. I’ve come here and done what I’ve always done. I feel I’m helping the team out and that’s what I’ve come here to do, to play my football, keep improving, keep doing well.
“Things aren’t always going to go right, I know that, but it’s about how you come back from it. It’s a big learning curve and I’m just really enjoying it.”
But with happiness, and the potential prospect of captaining both club and country, Stones also wants honours.
“I’m an ambitious guy, would love to keep playing well and, with England, take my form into that as well with the World Cup in mind,” he says. “Hopefully we can do some-thing special as a country.
“I want to win trophies, definitely, that’s the aim. This is a big game against Barcelona, a big occasion the Champions League, and we want to go far in it. To win it, you need to beat the best teams, we all know that, and that’s what we will be trying to do.
“I think we can go to Barcelona and get a big result with how we’ve been playing.
“The result wasn’t what we wanted against Everton, but hopefully we can go there and cause a shock.”
Given his astounding rise and burning desire to achieve more though, it will be no shock to see Stones rank alongside Rio and Ronald one day.
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