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HEART OF FOOTBALL

Time to prove his long-term worth before anyone tries rolling Stones

John Stones has possibly three months to win something significant this season.

He and Everton could be one game away from reaching the FA Cup final in May. Stones might then, if selected, be pivotal to England's defence during the Euro 2016 tournament in June.

Stones is compared by some observers with long memories as being in the same mould as Bobby Moore and Franz Beckenbauer.

Make that very long memories.

Moore and Beckenbauer were elegant performers on opposite sides of the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley. Yes, half a century ago.


Chelsea's John Terry (right) in action against Everton's John Stones. If Stones showed reliable and consistent progress, there would be no talk of Terry, at age 35, returning to don England's colours at Euro 2016.
PHOTO: REUTERS

They didn't just turn defence into attack in one pass, or with one run.

They had what Stones appears to have now: They moved around like swans, gliding over the turf, thinking ahead of opponents around them, looking serene in a role that is often seen as the most brutally negative in football.

John Terry is a hard core centre-back, and even as Chelsea seemed ready, until this weekend, to offload him, there is talk of Terry returning to England's back line for the Euro.

Terry is 35. Stones is 21.

There is a chasm of experience between the two, but if only Stones could be relied upon to continue his progress, there would be no talk of Old John - at Chelsea or at England.

But if you tune in for Manchester United versus Everton in the EPL tonight (in what happens to be a rehearsal for the FA Cup semi-final in three weeks' time) there is no guarantee that John Stones will start today's game.

Fifty years ago, perhaps, football could indulge a player who, like Moore, like Beckenbauer, like Stones, wants to play creatively from the back. Nowadays, no one is afforded time, or forgiven indulgence.

There are two questions over Stones following his part in England's defeat against Holland last Tuesday. One is his physical state, following a knee he strained against the Dutch; the other is his confidence after an error that led to a goal, and after Everton have started him just once in the last nine games.

That, for a budding Beckenbauer or Moore, is unconscionable.

Everton manager Roberto Martinez did his best on Friday to say that Stones is still at a development stage.

What? At 21, almost 22, and almost 100 games into his career we must still imagine Stones running around with L-plates?

There is huge potential in him, but also immense pressure.

Fifty years ago, perhaps, football could indulge a player who, like Moore, like Beckenbauer, like Stones, wants to play creatively from the back.

Nowadays, no one is afforded time, or forgiven indulgence.

Stones' fiercest critics have been Evertonians, the fans who wait year after year, decade upon decade, to win something.

Between July and September last year, Chelsea offered £20 million (S$38.4 million), then £26 million, then £30 million to try to prise him away from Goodison Park.

A lot of water has passed under Stamford Bridge since then.

Jose Mourinho was fired before Christmas. But his very public courtship of Stones led to the Everton player requesting, in writing, to be allowed to move.

Everton and Martinez stayed strong, and reminded Stones that he had signed a long-term contract and it was in his best interest, and the club's, to show some loyalty.

He didn't move, and he didn't sulk. Stones seemed to grow in assurance. But Everton fans became hyper-critical of the star defender their club had purchased from Barnsley as a teenager.

When Stones attempted clever moves in defensive areas, the fans (and the media) criticised him. He should, in the English sense, clear the ball, "put his foot through it" in the jargon of hoofing it away from danger.

Meantime, with the gossip growing that not only Chelsea, but Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona want Stones, the price on him seemed to leap to £50 million.

Here's the problem for Everton. Its boardroom has just acquired a rich new director, the British-Iranian Farhad Moshiri who sold his £200 million stake in Arsenal to buy 49.9 per cent of the Everton shareholding.

Moshiri isn't a man to boast about how aggressively his money will enable Everton to compete at the top from here on in.

Neither he, nor anyone at Everton, knows for certain that Stones, or Romelu Lukaku or Ross Barkley will still be Evertonians after this season.

Or, indeed, if Martinez will remain as manager.

The Cup Final might play a big part in the above questions, but in modern football "big" players want to be in the Champions League.

Chelsea will not be in that. ManU still have an outside chance, but need to win tonight... and many other nights.

Barca and Real Madrid will, perennially be Champions Leaguers.

There will be two contenders for England centre-back roles tonight - Chris Smalling in the United back line, and Phil Jagielka for Everton.

It is no coincidence that Everton tightened up in defence when Jagielka came back after a long bout of injury. When the skipper, Jagielka, returned, Martinez had a choice to make.

He had signed Ramiro Funes Mori from River Plate and, despite many observers, including the Argentina national coach Gerardo Martino, thinking that at 25 Funes Mori lacked the pace and physicality to be a top defender, he grew into that at Everton.

There have been times when Martinez has tried fielding all three centre-backs - Jagielka, Stones and Funes Mori - in a line at the back.

There has been an experiment with Stones in a central midfield role, which with his ability to create but the uncertainty about him as a defender, could yet be the player's future.

But the fact is that, while Martinez loves developing young players and loves creativity anywhere on the pitch, the Everton manager is under pressure to win something.

Pressure on the manager heaps pressure upon players, particularly those like Stones, Barkley and Lukaku, for whom bigger clubs would pay a fortune.

The term "bigger clubs" is painful to Everton fans, including those I know in Singapore. But when a potentially great young Everton player has his head turned by offers few would shrug off, we know there is no level playing field in sport.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 03, 2016, with the headline 'Time to prove his long-term worth before anyone tries rolling Stones'. Print Edition | Subscribe