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Harry and I trust in each other. He’s an incredible person...

JOHN STONES is confident he and Maguire will be foundation for England’s glory bid

- John Stones spoke at the launch of this winter’s McDonald’s Fun Football sessions. Find a session at: www.mcdonalds.co.uk/football by Jack Gaughan

THErE is some irony to the weeks John Stones has spent regaining match sharpness ahead of the World Cup: they have been at right back.

Without the injured Kyle Walker, that is where Manchester City have asked arguably the finest centre half this country has produced since John Terry and rio Ferdinand to operate. And to his credit, Stones — now fully free of a hamstring problem sustained against Germany in September — looks fairly natural on the flank.

He did play there at Barnsley as a kid but never quite like this. With the way City function, their full backs will often assume positions behind the striker, briefly in a No 10 role, and for someone always renowned for his precision in possession, the change in role has brought a refreshing challenge.

‘I’m relishing the chance to learn,’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘Different positions to receive the ball, different movements to get there. We’ll move the ball from centre half to right back often and having now played that position, having received those passes, I now wouldn’t play them as a centre half.

‘You learn what kind of situations you put your team-mates in — you don’t know until you live it. I love learning new things like that. I don’t think I’ll ever stop and I’m always looking to evolve.’

Stones has always boasted the tactical dexterity that Pep Guardiola demands, and the performanc­es over four starts since his return — he was the only City defender to leave Saturday’s defeat by Brentford with credit — indicate that he is heading for Qatar on an upward curve. He believes these games make him increasing­ly adaptable for Gareth Southgate — particular­ly more at ease on the right of a back three if required — and that the extra running needed at full back has accelerate­d his comeback.

He will be back in the middle, where England fans are used to seeing him, come Monday against Iran, though. Playing all but 11 minutes of the run to last summer’s Euros final in a team that did not concede until the last four, Stones’ contributi­on is occasional­ly underplaye­d.

A fine tournament, personally and collective­ly, yet he has not relived the penalty defeat by Italy. ‘I’ve not seen the game back,’ he says. ‘There are certain aspects of that game I’ve seen when we have watched footage as a team with England but the full game? I can’t. It’s too raw.

‘I’ll probably watch in years to come when

I finish.

What we did in that tournament was incredible and I don’t want to tarnish my memories by reliving something that ended as a negative result.

‘It’s a personal way of coping. Everyone is different with how they deal with situations, or put something to bed.’

There will be no individual­ism at the back over the next month. If England are to meet expectatio­ns, Southgate’s defence must be as in sync as they were at the last tournament. Harry Maguire goes to Qatar with question marks, just as he did last time.

Then it centred on injury, now it is his club form. But Southgate has explained Maguire’s inclusion in the squad is down to experience. He and Stones have dovetailed well and noticeably only both started twice during England’s six winless games — in draws against Germany.

‘I’ve only heard about the criticism. I’ve not seen it,’ says Stones ( left), who avoids social media. ‘I’ve been through periods of difficulty and it’s never easy. I’m sure he is aware of it. ‘He is a person who is not willing to give in. He is a top player, an incredible person. I admire his mentality. It’s not about proving people wrong, he will prove to himself coming out of this that he has stayed true to what he believes in and is fighting for.

‘We have trust in each other and that comes with playing loads of games together, forming that partnershi­p. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and can combat those. We have been through some big experience­s together. They are memories that will stay with me for ever.

‘What we have done, how we fight through adversity — especially in some games — and how we have each other’s back is very special.’

It feels, however, that England have catching up to do. There is acceptance that those six games were below par. Southgate has assessed them with the squad, Stones insisting players have met their shortcomin­gs head on. It has been far from the perfect build-up.

‘It is never easy when you go through a bad patch. We have done as an England team — we can’t deny that. We haven’t played well, we all know that. The most important thing is accepting that.

‘We’ve got a lot of winners in that team. Everyone is hungry — especially with us missing out at the Euros. That desire to win something is definitely stronger. We have to win every game, which is so difficult, but that is why we are in the competitio­n. We want to win it.’

There is a steel to Stones. ‘We’ve got to believe in ourselves within our circle and make everyone proud,’ he adds. ‘Whatever comes out of this tournament, if we give everything and it doesn’t work out, we can hold our heads high.

‘We’ve got a great team, great mentality and that positive and quiet confidence within the group will stand us in good stead.’

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