To many onlookers, it was the game that transformed the belief of Gareth Southgate’s England team, the one which elevated them from hopefuls to contenders. It is certainly how John Stones sees it and yet there was also the moment within it when destiny played its part – or maybe just plain good luck.
Stones had the perfect view. It was England’s last-16 tie against Germany at Wembley in the European Championship last summer and the defender was chasing Thomas Müller. He was never going to get back. It was the 81st minute, Raheem Sterling had sold Stones short with a back pass, Kai Havertz released Müller and the Germany forward looked certain to equalise for 1-1. And yet he shot wide.
Sterling crumpled to the turf in relief. His goal had given England the lead and, after Müller’s miss, Harry Kane’s second would secure a famous victory – one that, in many respects, frames England’s Nations League tie against Germany on Tuesday night.
It was the first time since the 1966 World Cup final that England had beaten Germany at the knockout stage of a major tournament – the inglorious run taking in the World Cups of 1970, 1990 and 2010 and Euro 96. More broadly, it was only a ninth knockout-round victory since 1966 and the list had contained only one big scalp (Spain at Euro 96).
The path to the Euro final had been lit and England would get there, although the heartbreaking twist was the defeat by Italy on penalties. But something had changed. Now they knew they had what it took to rival the elite and it will drive them at the Qatar World Cup at the end of the year.
“The Germany game was probably the turning point in that tournament of feeling the belief that we could go on and win this,” Stones says. “For us to play the way we did … it gave us that belief that we can compete with these teams on a regular basis.
“In the past, I’ve had a feeling as a team that it [Germany] is a difficult fixture. I feel the mentality has changed in that we know that we are capable of winning this game. There’s a big shift in mentality.”
How many times must Stones have replayed the Müller breakaway in his head? Another question. What would have happened if he had scored?
“I remember the ball breaking and I didn’t want to dive in [on Havertz] in case he touched it round me and then I am on a yellow card,” Stones says. “It is always difficult when it [the back pass] is just too short. As a player, you know when you can get the ball.
“When he touched it round me I thought: ‘I’ve got to spring back as fast as I can and hope for the best.’ It was a heart-in-mouth moment. We had that bit of luck that every team needs. I remember Raheem’s reaction, too. It didn’t faze us after that. We kept playing. It was a learning curve for me, as well. Maybe next time I do take the yellow card. I just don’t want to experience that again!”
It has been another rollercoaster season for Stones, with his club, Manchester City, stunned by Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final, conceding twice at the end of normal time before exiting in extra time. Stones missed the game through injury but was back for the final day of the Premier League season when City got the victory they needed at home against Aston Villa to take the title, recovering from 2-0 down to win 3-2.
“I wasn’t fully ready for the first leg against Madrid,” Stones says. “We made the decision together [for him to start], we knew the risks and it was frustrating [when he broke down]. But coming back for the last game was great. What an ending to the season.
“It was difficult going out of the Champions League. We’ve not had many big setbacks like that to deal with and it made our mentality even stronger to go and win the Premier League. We left it late – that’s all I can say.”
Stones continues to revel in being a part of the England squad, to attack each challenge, the latest being to bounce back from the 1-0 defeat against Hungary in Budapest on Saturday in his 56th cap. It is partly because he feared his international career was over when his form dipped in 2019 and he was cast into exile. Stones did not play again until March 2021 when he won his 40th cap against San Marino.
“I had a dream as a kid, which was to play for England and then it was to get 50 caps,” Stones says. “But when I was not playing, I never thought I would get the opportunity again. You do doubt yourself. I would have given everything to be back and I used that as motivation.
“You set yourself a target [50 caps] and it rolls on. What is the next target? I’ve read this book on mentality and it says not to cap yourself off at a target. Your target should be to get as many as you can.”