LONDON: John Stones admits he probably wouldn't have been in England's squad if Euro 2020 had gone ahead last year, but now the revitalised defender will be a key figure in Sunday's final against Italy.
When the coronavirus pandemic caused the European Championship to be postponed 12 months ago, Stones was on the fringes of the England team after a troubled spell at Manchester City.
No longer trusted at centre-back by City manager Pep Guardiola, Stones found England boss Gareth Southgate had a similar view of his frailties.
Early in the 2020-21 season, Stones was in danger of sliding even further down the pecking order for club and country after Guardiola signed Ruben Dias and Nathan Ake in his position.
Asked on Friday if he believed he would have made the Euro squad before the coronavirus hit, Stones said: "I couldn't tell you! Maybe not, I'm not sure. I'm so glad to be here right now."
Stones refused to give up and eventually played his way back into favour with both Guardiola and Southgate.
The 27-year-old helped City win the Premier League and reach their maiden Champions League final, earning a first England call-up since 2019 for the World Cup qualifiers in March.
Stones has emphatically seized his second chance with England, playing with such composure and maturity that he goes into the final as one of the Euro's best defenders.
Whether in a back four alongside Harry Maguire or Tyrone Mings, or playing in a three-man defence, Stones was unflappable as England kept five successive clean sheets to start the tournament before finally conceding in the semi-final against Denmark.
- 'Super proud' -
Stones has been the only player to feature in defence for all six games, and has surpassed an England record previously held by World Cup winner Bobby Moore, whose best run for the country was four consecutive clean sheets.
"I was made aware of that record. I'm a bit speechless about it and super proud," Stones said.
"It is something we have worked hard for and it's kind of clicked this tournament with the clean sheets and that defensive mentality I tried to bring from my season with City.
"It's been an incredible six games so far. We've been calm and collected. It's one of the qualities we have as a team."
Stones is one of four Yorkshire-born players -- the others being Maguire, Kyle Walker and Kalvin Phillips -- to have featured regularly for England in the tournament.
So does Stones believe the northern county's unique, hard-nosed characteristics have been key to England's historic run?
"I'd like to think so! We joke about it sometimes," he said with a smile.
"The success is down to individual quality, no matter where anyone comes from.
"I'd like to say it's because we are from Yorkshire but I don't think it is!"
England's success owes more to Southgate's inspired leadership than any Yorkshire roots.
And Stones says Southgate is willing to stray from his 'Mr Nice Guy' public persona if the team fall below the standards he demands.
"He wouldn't be human if he didn't. As a manager you have to have that side in you, to pick up on things when standards drop," Stones said.
"Gareth will do that. It's about what he wants from the players and if we don't do that, he will be the first person to tell us. He is on us no matter what."