Commentary

Quality & investment - City kill 2 birds with 1 Stones

The night before Everton agreed to pay Barnsley £3 million (S$5.3 million) for the 18-year-old John Stones in January 2013, David Moyes called David Flitcroft, his counterpart at the Championship club.

The Scot wanted to ask the manager who had nurtured the teenager if he believed that his protege could cut it among the elite. Flitcroft simply told him he was "buying money".

At the time, neither man knew quite how prescient those words would prove to be.

In the course of two years coaching him, Flitcroft had spotted the defender's "elegance", noted he could "pass like a midfielder" and admired his "insatiable hunger to keep the ball out of the goal" but he is no soothsayer. "Nobody," as he says, "has a crystal ball."

He would not claim to have known that, a little more than three years later, Stones would be on the verge of becoming the most expensive English player in history, eclipsing the £49 million that Manchester City paid for Raheem Sterling last summer, and, together with David Luiz, the costliest defender ever.

To put the transfer in perspective, the record for an English centre-back is still the £30 million Manchester United paid Leeds United for Rio Ferdinand back in 2002.

That Pep Guardiola is prepared to pay such a sum is, of course, testament to more than Stones' ability.

Thanks to the impact of the Premier League's £5.134-billion television deal, this will go down as the summer in which transfer fees broke free from what decaying moorings remained to bind them to reality.

Indeed, it is a measure of just how valuable the "humble, grounded" player Flitcroft knew is now that Barnsley, thanks to a 15 per cent sell-on clause inserted into his contract, can expect to receive a windfall of £7.5 million if and when Stones completes his £50 million move to City.

That Pep Guardiola is prepared to pay such a sum is, of course, testament to more than Stones' ability.

Thanks to the impact of the Premier League's £5.134-billion television deal, this will go down as the summer in which transfer fees broke free from what decaying moorings remained to bind them to reality. What was already an inflationary spiral has hit Weimar Republic levels.

At first glance, it makes little sense for Guardiola to sanction such a vast outlay on Stones. Chelsea submitted three bids for him last summer.

When Everton refused to budge - unmoved by the defender handing in a transfer request - even at £40 million, they deemed the price unreasonable.

Over the past 12 months, there is little evidence he has added £10 million to his value. As Everton struggled, Stones' composure seemed to desert him.

Even Roberto Martinez's faith in him, previously unimpeachable, seemed to waver. He fell behind Chris Smalling in the pecking order for Roy Hodgson's England team - criticism, from well-educated quarters, mounted.

Jamie Carragher said his "defending lacks intensity and he does not see danger early enough". Martin Keown encouraged him to hone his basics and leave "the icing on the cake", the passing range that so appealed to Flitcroft, until later.

That he is more valuable now than he was a year ago, then, says as much about the market as it does the commodity.

This is a world, after all, in which United paid £30 million for Eric Bailly, a 22-year-old defender who has 47 senior club appearances.

In that context, the fee for Stones is not so improbable, not simply because of his greater experience or even because of his nationality. No, what makes Stones especially valuable is his skill set.

"There is a big emphasis on defenders being able to build from the back," Gary Pallister, once Britain's most expensive defender, says. "Managers want players who are comfortable on the ball, capable of driving into spaces. That is why Stones stands out."

The doubts have always been over the other side of his game: the suspicion that he overcomplicates things, fails to discern between, as Sol Campbell once put it, "the moments to keep the ball and the moments to play the ball".

There are plenty, most notably Ferdinand - so enraged by Stones' critics that he called a radio phone-in to defend him - who feel that he should be allowed to make mistakes as he learns.

Flitcroft, for one, is adamant he will iron out his weaknesses quickly. "He is such a quick learner," says Flitcroft. "He is always trying to improve himself.

"Maybe at times with Everton he was out of position, but Guardiola will know how to get the best out of him. He will teach him."

He has no doubt whatsoever that Stones will continue to improve.

"His whole aim is to get better and better, to be the best he can be," Flitcroft says.

Even at £50 million, Flitcroft, without doubt, would tell Guardiola the same as he told Moyes. He is buying money.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2016, with the headline 'Quality & investment - City kill 2 birds with 1 Stones'. Print Edition | Subscribe