“I don’t want to swear,” John Stones says when the conversation turns to Manchester City’s defeat by Chelsea in the Champions League final last month. “At the end of the game it was probably one of the worst feelings I have had in football. Getting so far in something and then not succeeding is difficult. I spent a few days after having flashbacks and getting upset.
“That was my first final I have not been successful in. But I learned a lot and next time hopefully it will turn out a different way.”
All being well Stones will make his next appearance in a final at Wembley on 11 July. The defender is feeling good before England reprise their rivalry with Germany in the last 16. Impressive during the group stage, he resumed his partnership with Harry Maguire during the win 1-0 over the Czech Republic and is bullish in his belief that England are beginning to work out how to navigate tournament football.
This is a team capable of grinding out ugly wins. The hope before facing Germany is that they are shedding their naivety. The mind goes back to England ending their penalty shootout woes when they beat Colombia in the last 16 of the 2018 World Cup and Stones is confident they can rise to the latest challenge by achieving something rare at Wembley on Tuesday: winning a knockout tie against one of the game’s superpowers.
“You want to test yourselves against the best teams and that’s the opportunity we’ve got now,” he says. “We didn’t concede in three games. That’s a massive thing in tournament football – to keep clean sheets and to keep progressing. That allows the players up top to score the goals and express themselves.
“The winning mentality is coming out. There’s a real hunger there. It’s a time to show not just Europe but the world what a good team we are. We give Germany massive respect but we have to go out and implement our game.”
Stones considers the impact of the win against Colombia in Russia. “We wanted to change the way the nation looks at English football,” he says. “We’ve taken massive strides in that since 2018 and it’s about doing it again. I don’t think we should put any more pressure on ourselves. There’s a trophy to be won that’s never been won before and we should go in with that fearlessness we’ve had over these years.”
There is a desire to erase the pain of the World Cup semi-final defeat by Croatia. “We need to keep building on what we did then,” he says. “To get to a semi-final in my first World Cup was something I’m really proud of. I’m trying to give advice to those who haven’t been in tournament football before.”
Stones is no longer a junior member of the squad. The 27-year-old has put a difficult spell behind him, regaining his England place thanks to his outstanding performances for City. He knows what it takes to battle through poor form and he sees a similar resilience in his clubmate Raheem Sterling, who shrugged off his struggles at City by scoring England’s two goals of the group stage.
“Everyone has adversity in their careers,” Stones says. “When I say about winning mentality, sometimes it’s something that you sense out on the pitch. I’ve been lucky enough to play for some incredible teams with some very successful players who just have this natural edge about them. You just know they’ll do anything to win.
“I can sense that in our squad. When it’s like that, it starts to spread like wildfire. It’s the hunger. Boys have been winning things for their clubs and they get that hunger for lifting trophies. It is an addiction. We’re in for the long haul hopefully.”
Stones is not in a mood to mess around. He is reminded of scoring a Panenka penalty for Everton in pre-season against Juventus in 2013, but he is not planning a repeat if it goes to a shootout against Germany. He saw the consequences of self-indulgence when Sergio Agüero bungled a dinked penalty during City’s defeat by Chelsea in the league last month.
“We’ve been practising so much,” Stones says. “How to prepare yourself for that moment, have a little process that you go through that makes you feel as comfortable as possible. Choose your spot.”
England sorted their takers on the night when Gareth Southgate missed in the Euro 96 semi-final against Germany. Now they plan for every eventuality. “Everything will be done before so it’s not like a mad scramble and we look like we’re unprepared,” Stones says.
“We want to be going into it knowing that we’ve ticked every box. Knowing that when a certain situation comes no one is panicking, saying: ‘Oh, do you want to go third?’”
Stones sounds utterly focused. He is ready to face Kai Havertz, the German forward who scored the winner when Chelsea beat City in Porto. It is all about the next challenge for Stones, who is nonplussed when it is pointed out that Ederson, City’s goalkeeper, almost dispossessed Havertz.
“I’m going to be honest,” he says. “I have not watched it back.”