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.