Jun 262014

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A snapshot in time.

Two young players tussle for the ball on a blustery January afternoon in South Yorkshire, as Barnsley entertain Leeds United at Oakwell.

It was hardly a game or result to go down in history, although the Tykes did dent United’s promotion run with a surprise 2-0 win.

That was 2013 and even with the typically abundant self-belief of professional athletes, the two opponents could not have imagined that 18 months later they would be both England and Everton FC team-mates.

John Stones still shakes his head with a dash of disbelief when he recalls how far both he and Ross Barkley have come since then.

Earlier this summer Barkley tweeted the photograph to his followers, and as he sat down with the ECHO in his home-town Stones, 20, explained how he hopes it can become an iconic image.

“That picture is an important one for us to look back on because it shows where we’ve come from and what we can achieve,” he says.

“No doubt we’ll look back at it fondly in years to come and hopefully by then there’ll be many more of us playing on the same side in blue.

“I remember the game, playing against Ross, and him just being miles ahead of the players at Leeds, and that’s no disrespect to them.

“As everyone can see he’s gone from strength to strength. What he wrote on the caption when he put it on Twitter says it all – ‘Hard Work Pays Off.’  We weren’t thinking about anything paying off back then, we were just working hard.

“I’d never played with Ross before that game. I’d known of him and he’d known of me so we had that respect for each other but it wasn’t until I came to Everton that we became close friends.”

Close friends for certain, and also the bedrock of Roberto Martinez’s dreams of a golden generation for the Toffees along with other prospects such as Ryan Ledson and George Green.

Before last season Stones, who signed for the Blues shortly after the photograph was taken, had not made a senior appearance.

Under the guidance of the Catalan last term he made 26, and rapidly rose to prominence as one of the best young central defenders in Europe.

“It’s all gone so quickly,” says Stones as he pulls on Everton’s smart new 2014/15 home shirt for the cameras.

“Getting all those games under my belt at this age has really motivated me even more to do well this season. Hard work gets rewards and Roy rewarded me this summer with the England cap.

“For that I can’t thank all the players and staff at Everton enough. It was a very nice moment for me and my family getting that cap.”

Stones has positively flourished under Martinez’s tutelage, and he believes the pair were fated to work together in the end.

Everton had to steal the defender away from Martinez back on January transfer deadline day 2013 when he was ready to join Martinez’s Wigan, before then Blues scout Tony Henry persuaded David Moyes to make his move.

“I think it was meant to be,” he says. “It was a relief for both of us when we finally got the chance to work together but especially on my behalf because it’s helped my game. He’s the right man to take me forward and his coaching staff as well.

“It’s a bit of fate maybe or just a happy coincidence.

“He’s great to be around. It’s been no surprise to me that they’ve enjoyed his World Cup analysis over in America because I don’t think you’ll meet anyone with a bigger passion for the game. He’s so dedicated.

“I’m sure he’ll have a lot of planning for our season and we as players need to step up and be in top condition for pre-season.”

After such a successful first season down-to-earth Stones is taking nothing for granted, but equally he is not fretting about the spectre of that dreaded ‘second-season syndrome’.

“I will look to build on my start rather than worry about second season syndrome,” he says. “We made a platform last season and we just need to better that. I’m sure we will because the players in the dressing room are so eager to improve themselves and take the club forward.

“There’s a lot of winners in that dressing room and I’m confident we’ll kick on.”

Kicking on next term will entail the club’s first participation in European competition in four years, something Stones is palpably thrilled about.

For someone used to taking giant strides rather than baby steps it is the natural next box to tick.

“Europe will be another learning curve like all the others,” he says. “It’s like being back at school again.

“There are a wider range of teams in Europe playing different styles of football and for a defender you’ve got to cope with different attacks and players who can do different things. It will only help me even more in the Premier League. I’ll take that from one to another and become a better player.

“I’m looking forward to going to the games and soaking up the feel of them. It will be an experience in itself travelling to the games and having a different focus to take your mind off the Premier League.”

Martinez will look to use the breadth of his squad to ensure the Blues prosper on all fronts from August onwards, and if that means rotation, of sorts, Stones is unsurprisingly up for the challenge of playing his part.

 “When you’re called upon you’ve got to be ready to show what you can do in the big games,” he insists. “You can’t take a single thing for granted. The Premier League is hard each week and Europe is too – there are some big teams in it this season.

“I can’t wait.”

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