Romancing the Stone

Euro '96: England's latest hero seizes the opportunity to display his strength of character and international maturity; Norman Fox talks to a super sub who cemented the national cause

FROM the moment Steve Stone came on as substitute at Wembley England played like a team. Suddenly there was width, pace allied to strength and, above all, a balance. He got a lot of the credit for the badly needed win over the Swiss and left several more experienced rivals for the wide attacking midfield role wondering whether Terry Venables might now be tempted to stick with him. Not a bad night's work for a player who once sent out begging letters to clubs because he thought nobody wanted him, broke a leg three times and was convinced that he was finished before he was 20.

Stone may have been Nottingham Forest's Player of the Year last season, but even when he made his first appearance for England against Norway in Oslo last month he was still a largely unrecognised talent. Not that even he expected to be considered for the squad. "I'd had a good season and the team was doing well in this one, but I don't think I would have got in the squad if it hadn't been for injuries. But you have to take your chances." And in an otherwise disappointing England performance against Norway he certainly did that. He said that despite his laid-back reputation he was a bag of nerves, but, as Venables says, controlling them is the art of the successful newcomer.

Although Stone shares the same birthplace (Gateshead) as Paul Gascoigne, he could hardly be less like that flamboyant eccentric. Gerry Francis remarked that he seemed almost too modest and honest for his own good. They met after a recent game at White Hart Lane when Stone scored the winning goal against Spurs. "I told him that if we had to lose, we might as well lose to a great goal like the one he chipped in," Francis said. "Then he said it was a mistake - he intended it to be a centre. That ruined my day, but he's one of those players who keeps coming at you, and he's quite quick."

Being fairly quick and direct attracted little attention in the North- east when as a teenager he decided he wanted to become a professional. A Newcastle fan, he was disappointed when they failed to reply to his letter asking for a trial. Sunderland and eight other clubs were similarly unhelpful. He became desperate: after all, these days if you are 13 years old and have not been watched by a big club you start thinking you have missed the bus. But his letter caught the attention of Nottingham Forest, who did offer him a trial and took him on, only to have him break his right leg three times. Muscular complications set in, and he remembers "seeing the coaches at Forest looking at each other, as if to say 'how much longer before we tell him?' but I got through it."

Lively, but in awe of Stuart Pearce and especially Brian Clough, he eventually found them to be considerable allies. Nevertheless, he lived in fear of Clough's notoriously penetrating criticism. "On my debut I was really nervous before kick-off and must have been wittering on. He came in and told me to belt up." Archie Gemmill saw his potential and continually nagged at him when he held the ball for too long and ended up passing to the opposition.

Frank Clark's contribution to his progress has been more tactical. "I was playing the centre of midfield, which I like, but he moved me wide. I didn't play well for a while but he kept working on me. I've still got work to do on my crosses." Perhaps so, but making people make mistakes is his forte, something he proved in the recent European games, especially when scoring in the away leg at Auxerre. Forest may not have dominated that tie, but Stone's cool, pragmatic approach to the special problems involved in playing against a club with Auxerre's pedigree was crucial. They hope it will remain so against Lyon on Tuesday.

Venables said that what first impressed him was Stone's strength of character, adding: "He's adapted to international football in the same way that he adapted to playing European matches." Obviously his recent form has drawn the attention of other clubs, not least Manchester United. Doubtless tongue in cheek, Alex Ferguson says that it was a complete coincidence that his recent visit to Auxerre was on the day Forest were playing. He was only there to "study their set-up and youth policy". But, "yes", like everyone else he was impressed by Stone's ability to "get behind defences and never give anyone a chance to settle".

Clark says he has been fending off offers ever since Stone got his first cap, but 18 months ago there was virtually no interest. The injuries had delayed Stone's first-team career until he was 21. Clark jokes that because this sturdy 24-year-old had been losing his hair since he was a teenager, clubs assumed he was much older than he really was and perhaps ignored his long-term potential.

Asked to name the player who most inspires him, Stone chose Peter Beardsley, which was ironic since it was Beardsley who was expected to be the first substitute to get on the pitch last Wednesday night. Stone got there before him. He could be on a roll.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions