EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: John Stones on dealing with criticism, the Premier League title race and Champions League ambitions

Alam Khan - Reporter 01:30 29/12/2019
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  • Asked whether he is likely to be judged on every performance until he quits football, there is no momentary pause from John Stones to consider his response. Just defiance.

    “Yeah, 100 per cent,” he says without hesitation.

    Ever since he joined Manchester City from Everton in 2016 for £47.5 million, the centre-back has been under scrutiny – and seemingly continuously on trial.

    Not just when playing for the Etihad club, but on international duty with England too.

    Any mistake, like the one in June against the Netherlands that saw England defeated in the Nations League semi final, generally provokes an outcry about his ability and price tag, with critics disregarding the impressive displays that have made his respective managers Pep Guardiola and Gareth Southgate view Stones as integral to their defensive line-up.

    “I don’t think other players play how I do in such a special team, the risks that we take from the back, that come off and create chances or goals for the team,” Stones told Sport360 exclusively. “I don’t think people always recognise that.

    “But the criticism is part and parcel of the game. It doesn’t affect me, you have to be strong. It’s part and parcel of playing football at this level.

    “I hold my hands up to every mistake. I think I’m man enough to deal with it. I think, in general, around the mistakes, for the likes of me or Raheem [Sterling] and players who are winning things in a top team, they are always going to get criticised more when things go wrong – and it’s our time to prove those people wrong.

    “It makes you a stronger character. But I also know I wouldn’t be the player I am without the mistakes I have made in the past. It has always brought me on. You learn.

    “There’s always going to be negative press, there’s going to be good press, but it’s finding that balance. From a player’s point of view, people have to look at the bigger picture.

    “Great players have always had criticism, of course, and you come under scrutiny. You just have to keep going.”

    This is certainly fighting talk from Stones after a difficult past 10 months.

    The frustration over injuries that have stunted his progress – or being the brunt of criticism – are laid bare as the 25-year-old explains how he has to remain positive and will focus on helping City’s challenge for more honours after a domestic treble of the Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup last season.

    “It was frustrating to start the season pulling my quad [muscle], playing one game and then pulling it again,” he added.

    “It was frustrating for us all as a team. It was a tough one to take for me personally after recovering, getting back fit and then going through the whole process again.

    “The injuries are always frustrating, but we have a great backroom staff at City and it’s about rebuilding.”

    A muscle injury sidelined him for the past month, but he has been back in training and could be in contention for a return against Sheffield United today.

    In reflecting on his growth as a player and success since joining City, Stones retains belief in himself. Just as he has faith in the club after their past record-breaking achievements and desire this season to match Manchester United’s haul of three league titles in succession between 2007 and 2009.

    “It was special what we achieved last season,” said Stones. “I don’t think we have got the credit that we deserved off outsiders, the sports fans in general, the football nation.

    “It’s something that probably won’t be done again for many years. It would be great for us to do it again, but we know it’s difficult.

    “It’s one of those things where we know what we have done, we know we have got those things kind of in the bank for us and we want to build on that. And that’s so difficult, trying to maintain it, trying to do it again.

    “Of course it would have been great to match that (United’s mark). It’s just got to be a motivation of ours to keep pushing to try to break these records. I’m still ambitious to do more definitely and so is everyone else.

    “Nothing has changed in our mentality to win the big trophies, definitely not.

    “First season we won the league [in 2018] it was right until the end when we got 100 points and we kept fighting for that. Then last season when we came back to win it on the final day.”

    Liverpool were denied on that occasion as they let slip a seven-point lead as City won 14 successive games to triumph.

    But it will take an extraordinary collapse from the Reds to turn things around this time.

    The dramatic 3-2 loss to Wolves on Friday left City in third place, 14 points behind Liverpool, who also have a game in hand.

    But, for Stones and his team-mates, there is still pride at stake and they will keep pushing until the end.

    “We wear that gold badge on our shirt for a reason,” he added. “It helps us realise we are still the champions. To win the title back to back, especially nowadays, is something so difficult and we were definitely proud of that.

    “What has happened at this club and what we have achieved speaks for itself and we just have to let the football do the talking.

    “Over the recent years we have done that and we will continue to do that. As a player we just approach the next game as it comes rather than thinking too far ahead.”

    The Champions League, where City face 13-time winners Real Madrid in the last 16, remains a prime objective, though.

    A controversial defeat to Tottenham in the quarter-finals last season on away goals – after VAR ruled out a potential winning strike from Sterling – hurt them badly, especially as Spurs went on to reach the final before losing to Liverpool.

    For David Silva, and perhaps Fernandinho, this season could be their last chance of winning the competition as their City contracts expire in the summer.

    And Stones admitted: “I think we have got an extra drive this season to win the Champions League.

    “We want to try to win everything that we did last season, but we didn’t win the Champions League and the club has never won it, so it’s something we want in the trophy cabinet.

    “It would be great for all of us involved at the club to win this. And we have to keep striving for that, to make it.

    “I watched Liverpool win it and, yeah, I thought that could have been us.

    “But it’s out of your hands when you go out of the competition how we did [with the VAR disallowed goal].

    “It was a bitter pill to swallow and that gives us that extra motivation this season and we have to do everything we can to fight for everything, every competition.

    “For us, as players, we also want to do it for the players that are also moving on, like David Silva. It’s something he has not won in his career so it would be the perfect send off.”

    For Stones, such a victory would also serve as the perfect riposte to the doubters.