England U21 1 Belarus U21 0
“The boy who’s come home,” was how Barnsley’s stadium announcer introduced John Stones before this game. The Everton man, naturally, received the loudest cheer heard all evening.
It is two-and-a-half years since Stones left behind his boyhood club and moved to Merseyside. And though his time in Barnsley’s first team was brief – he made just 28 senior appearances in all – it is clear that he is still remembered with fondness by Tykes fans.
The feeling is mutual, too.
He was on the cover of the match programme here, with a feature interview inside. In it, Stones spoke warmly about his time at Oakwell.
“I was only in the team for six months,” he said. “It was a short period but it was so important.”
Football – England v Belarus – Under 21 International Friendly – Oakwell – 11/6/15 Everton’s John Stones in action with Belarus’ Evgeny Lebedev Credit: Action Images / Peter Cziborra
Stones credits coaches Mark Burton and Ronnie Branson with developing the key aspects of his game, in particular his ability to play with comfort from the back. Here, he said, was the chance to “show everyone how far I’ve come.”
So, how far has he come? Well, the fact that plenty are surprised to see him with Gareth Southgate’s U21s instead of the senior England side suggests quite a distance.
Tournament experience, though, will do plenty for Stones’ long-term development. And on this evidence, the 21-year-old will have a big part to play as England bid for glory in the Czech Republic.
Stones never wavered and provided assured presence at the back
Starting alongside Ben Gibson, the Middlesbrough defender who once enjoyed a loan spell on Merseyside with Tranmere Rovers, Stones was largely able to cruise through this contest in second gear, dropping short to collect the ball before passing forwards crisply and accurately.
There was no great examination, defensively, with England spending almost the entirety of the first half on the front foot, and in possession of the ball. If there was a test for defenders, it was one of concentration.
Stones’, save for one moment where he was beaten to a speculative cross from the Belarus right, never wavered. He drew cheers when advancing into the opposition half to win a tackle near the touchline, and remained a reliable and assured presence on the ball. In short, he made it look easy, before being replaced at half time by Calum Chambers
England team group (top row left to right) Jack Butland, James Ward-Prowse, Carl Jenkinson, Will Hughes, Ben Gibson, John Stones. (bottom row left to right) Nathan Redmond, Saido Berahino, Tom Carroll, Alex Pritchard and Luke Garbutt before the Under 21 International Friendly at Oakwell, Barnsley. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo.
On the left, meanwhile, another Evertonian served up a timely reminder of his own promise.
Luke Garbutt is out of contract at Everton in a little over two weeks. And though the Blues are keen to tie the Yorkshireman down to a new deal, the player remains eager to make the step up to regular first-team football next season. A number of Premier League clubs, sensing an opportunity, are waiting to steal.
Garbutt’s early senior outings have been encouraging, to say the least, and here he surely nudged his way ahead of Matt Targett, the Southampton youngster, in the battle to be England’s first-choice left back in the Czech Republic.
His first forward foray, 14 minutes in, saw him whip in a peach of a cross which, after a couple of ricochets, was put into the net by Saido Berahino. A linesman’s flag cut short the celebrations.
He was a regular outlet down the left, providing the width as Alex Pritchard, or sometimes Nathan Redmond, looked to move infield.
And while there was the occasional loose pass or over-elaboration in possession (he also picked up a booking for a rash lunge late on) it was heartening to see how often Garbutt worked his way into dangerous positions in the final third. He almost fired the opening goal from Danny Ings’ pull back mid-way through the second half, but was denied by the ‘keeper.
In a defensive sense, his pace on the recovery was clear, while offensively, his delivery from wide, both dead ball and in-play, will develop into a serious weapon. It was his free kick which led to the breakthrough, scored by Gibson, and his performance earned him, deservedly, the sponsors’ man of the match award.
He may struggle, right now, to displace Leighton Baines as first-choice at Goodison, but Everton should be doing everything they can to keep Garbutt. In he and Stones, they have two of the most promising young defenders in the country.
ENGLAND U21: Butland (Bond), Jenkinson, Stones (Chambers), Gibson, Garbutt, Carroll (Forster-Caskey), Ward-Prowse (Chalobah), Hughes (Loftus-Cheek), Redmond (Ings), Pritchard (Lingard), Berahino (Kane)
Not used: Bettinelli, Moore, Keane, Targett