MAIN ATTRACTIONS OF '96: Right man for the fight

Norman Fox studies the impact of England's Steve Stone
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MORE than anyone in the England squad, Nottingham Forest's goalscoring, wide midfield player Steve Stone is the man on whom the coach Terry Venables will depend for that vital element of surprise in next summer's European Championship. Stone appears to have secured his place on the right flank when England line up against the new, young Dutch, their old rivals from Scotland and the unpredictable Swiss, against whom he scored his first international goal in a friendly international at Wembley in November.

When he left the substitutes bench after only six minutes to replace Jamie Redknapp against Switzerland, he had no idea that he was about to establish himself as a full international after only one unexpected appearance. "I just sat there on the bench thinking I was just in the queue." But once on the pitch he gave a performance which - followed by a superb 20-yard shot that enabled England to draw with Portugal earlier this month - made it unlikely that his position will be challenged in 1996.

Stone's limited experience of international football leaves him relying on what he has seen on television to judge the quality of the opponents he will probably face in the European finals. After watching Holland's breathtaking defeat of the Republic of Ireland in the play-off at Anfield, he thought their performance was "not bad". Understatement is his speciality.

He has cultivated a habit of replying in a low-key way to any talk of the opposition, either England's or Forest's. That has impressed Venables, who says he liked the "easy way" Stone coped with becoming a member of the squad. Having had to deal with the enigmatic Paul Gascoigne, Venables is more than happy to have a down-to-earth potential linchpin in his team.

An easy manner belies Stone's attitude to the summer's challenge. "What I have learnt with Forest in Europe this season is that you can't give away possession. That's what Terry Venables says. It's what we have to concentrate on." Even so, he admits that his own worst fault isretaining possession when he should be releasing the ball.

Forest's comparative success in Europe this season has led him to believe what the Dutch manager, Guus Hiddink, recently said, that British league football is better than many critics have suggested. It was, he said, different to the Continental game but not inferior. Stone added: "It was only when I got into the England squad that I realised just what quality we had in the country. I know that a lot of clubs haven't done very well in Europe this season, but Forest have shown that we are not all that far behind the rest of them."

Stone confidently predicts that it will take some special performances by his rivals, including Darren Anderton, to dislodge him from the England team. "I've been really impressed with Terry Venables' set-up - I learnt a lot from being with the other internationals."

Stone has certainly won over Venables, who has seen him twice been named man of the match so early in his international career. Venables said: "Considering how little time we get together as a squad, it's good to see a new face come in and settle so quickly." For him, Stone represents the good things about British football: tidy technique, speed, strength and the ability to "press" defenders.

If Stone is to become the most influential player in the England squad, he need only continue in his present form. Then he may even fulfil his New Year resolution: "To win the European Championship with England so I can tell all those people who say we aren't good enough to shut up."