Almost two years ago to the day, walking off the Craven Cottage pitch from a confidence-boosting 3-1 win against Fulham, John Stones must have felt on top of the world.
The victory was the fourth of a thrilling six game winning streak that put Everton in pole position to finish fourth in the 2013/14 Premier League season, and in the absence of the injured Phil Jagielka, Stones was one of the stars of a glittering team.
The Toffees were pipped to the post of course, but finished in fifth place with their highest ever Premier League points tally. It was a rosy picture for Evertonians which was made rosier still with Stones soon to be pipped as a future England captain in the making, and touted as one of the finest centre halves to wear the Three Lions since Bobby Moore.
However, the defender’s career trajectory for both club and country is in danger of plummeting in the wrong direction following a turbulent four months.
Stones’ slip on Tuesday night could be seen as a microcosm for his metaphorical slip in form for Everton since December. But it needn’t stand as a case-in-point to leave him out of the side altogether, as many have suggested.
Yes, his ill-timed back pass to Tim Howard led to the concession of a penalty against Swansea. And his Cruyff turns against Spurs prompted the “calm-down” gesture which, in the minds of some Evertonians, was enough to banish him from first-team duty.
Stones mustn’t become England’s scapegoat
And for England fans too, it now seems the latest in his own personal blooper-reel is enough to condemn the 21 year-old to scapegoat status; a list long-enough to include the talents of Paul Gascoigne, David Beckham and Wayne Rooney among others.
But in the context of an international friendly, and a 2-1 defeat to the Netherlands two months and three games before England’s Euro 2016 opener, was it really that bad?
Are these games not useful dress rehearsals? Do they not provide (and I cringe to use the word) a ‘safe space’ in which Young Lions can test themselves alongside their English peers as well as against their international ones? If Stones can’t drop a dummy to a young Dutch forward winning only his second cap in a meaningless friendly, when can he?
Evertonians have seen the dummies, the Cruyff turns, the eye-of-a-needle passing and the suave maturity of the most elegant centre-half to walk out at Goodison Park for decades. And they’ve seen them come off, more times than they go wrong.
Stones’ talent can take him all the way
Yet it’s ever-so convenient to forget these moments of assured brilliance when things aren’t going so well. As Evertonians, we started to forget around the turn of the year, when a young and inexperienced central defensive partnership between Stones and Ramiro Funes Mori began to show signs of fragility. Blame Howard, blame Roberto Martinez, blame wasteful finishing or a weak mentality, wherever you point the blame one of the casualties of a team struggling for points and clean sheets was a confident Stones.
Stones’ rapid rise from bench-warmer to future England captain began during a record-points haul in Martinez’s first season in charge. He came into a side performing to the best of its ability, riding high on confidence and aiming for the top-four. Goodison was a place pouring with positivity and under a phenomenally upbeat Catalan, it was the perfect set of conditions for Stones to show the world what he was capable of.
Two seasons on and a dank cloud has gathered over L4, not only casting Martinez’ reign in gloom but certain players too, none more so than Stones. A terrific start to the season for the former Barnsley man has given way to January blues which continue into March.
Seven goals conceded in two games at home to Leicester and Stoke City gave Martinez food for thought and following a poor display away to Manchester City in the League Cup semi final, not to mention the penalty debacle at home to Swansea, it was Stones who was sacrificed as Martinez sought a way to stem the tide.
We’ve barely seen Stones since then, making just three appearances in six games, twice as a substitute. When we have seen him, we’ve admittedly not seen the kinds of ‘beyond-his-years’ performances that had Jose Mourinho ready to splurge £30m on him. Nonetheless we’ve seen a young man of 21 continue to show bravery and take risks when the stakes are high, in spite of justified criticism from fans and the media.
Let him play, even if it means more mistakes
Wembley witnessed this demonstration of utmost confidence on Tuesday night and like Evertonians many times this season, they had to watch this beautiful expression of talent turn ugly in a single moment; a single slip.
But as long as the confidence to try and play the ball out of defence remains, then Stones should continue to feature. Who else has the natural ability to glide out of defence? Who else can start free-flowing attacks from centre half? Who else has the same level of skill and composure under pressure? There is a time and a place for over-elaboration but the only way Stones will figure out when and where those occasions are is if he continues to take those risks on the pitch.
Positivity may not be abundant at Everton right now, but despite getting caught under his own feet against Holland, John Stones is best serving his club, his country and his own development by putting his most confident foot forward. Even if a Cruyff turn follows.