John Stones has backed under-fire Wayne Rooney, insisting he remains a key player for England as the national team enters yet another transitional period.
Never before has the Manchester United skipper faced so much scrutiny, not only over his place in the starting line-up but his position within it.
Rooney this week rejected the suggestion he is not only past his prime but past it altogether, with team-mates and staff rallying around the under-fire captain.
Chris Smalling believes he remains the “main man” for club and country despite being dropped at United, while Gareth Southgate swiftly confirmed he would remain captain during his four-match stint at the England helm.
The interim manager is understandably keen for continuity during these turbulent times, with Stones saying experience like Rooney’s is “massive” in the wake of Sam Allardyce’s abrupt and ignominious exit.
“Yeah, definitely,” the centre-back said when asked if Rooney was England’s key man.
“He has been over the years and every player goes through their up and down patches.
“Wayne’s always fully focused when he comes here and, as I say, a key player, as is everyone in my eyes in the squad.
“I think you could see that from the last game, when we scored late, how much it meant not just on the pitch but off the pitch.
“We watched it back and the bench all celebrated, the staff included, which I think shows a great unity about the team.”
England are looking to follow up that 1-0 victory in Slovakia by winning in Slovenia following Saturday’s home clash with Malta as qualification for the 2018 World Cup continues.
Rooney recently announced that it would be the final tournament of his record-breaking international career, with Stones among those mentioned as a possible replacement as captain.
“To be honest, I don’t really think about it too much,” the Manchester City defender said, smiling.
“I honestly am enjoying playing for my club and coming here and playing games and getting caps – it’s all that an England player wants, to play for their country.
“If that does happen in the future, then I’d obviously be over the moon. It’s every little boy’s dream, I suppose, to have that status.
“But right now, I don’t take too much notice about it.”
Stones may not be thinking of donning the armband but the 22-year-old is certainly looking ahead to a long future with England.
The Barnsley-born defender won his 11th senior cap in Allardyce’s first – and ultimately only – match at the helm, having been reduced to a watching brief at Euro 2016.
Stones headed to France on the back of a topsy-turvy season at Everton, but things have looked much better since making the much-mooted summer move to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
“Even when I was at Everton I still felt like I was improving, even though we weren’t getting some results,” he said.
“It’s a new chapter for me and I’m enjoying myself and trying to take in as much as possible and learning every day.
“My confidence has never dropped, but I am trying to express myself in how I play.
“I am enjoying my football and the winning helps, when the boys are scoring the goals and keeping clean sheets it is always massive for defenders.
“It has been a good start for us. As I say, I am enjoying my football, I am trying to take in as much as I can and learn a new style of play with new team-mates and a new club.”
Stones is now preparing to play under his third England manager – a man he knows well from his time with the Under-21s.
“It’s been quite similar, obviously having worked under him in the Under-21s,” he said of Southgate.
“He’s always been around the place and coming into our dressing room, seeing all the senior boys while he was with the Under-21s, so it’s all familiar faces.
“It is good to come in and feel relaxed in your environment still, knowing how he works.
“He knows us all, coming to many Premier League games, I’m sure. It’s been a good few days and all the boys are getting on well. Yeah, really enjoying it.”