John Stones Euro-U21 blow for England

England's ex-Barnsley defender John Stones. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA
England's ex-Barnsley defender John Stones. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA

Gareth Southgate has been forced into a defensive rethink after John Stones was ruled out of England Under-21s’ first two European Championship matches with suspected concussion.

One of the Young Lions’ key men, the Everton and former Barnsley defender was set to start tonight’s Group B opener against Portugal in Uherske Hradiste.

However, fears were raised over Stones’ availability when the defender failed to emerge for training on the eve of the match, with what was described as a head injury.

Head coach Southgate has now confirmed he has sustained suspected concussion, ruling him out of the opener against Portugal and Sunday’s clash with Sweden.

“We’ve just one concern over John Stones, who picked up a head injury so unfortunately it looks like he will miss the game with suspected concussion,” Southgate said.

“It is a great shame for him first and foremost. He has been looking forward to this immensely and he is bitterly disappointed.

“Our first thoughts are to lift his spirits as quickly as possible. In terms of the group, we have a strong mentality.”

But despite the blow the U21s are determined to change the perception of English football by winning the Championship.

The Young Lions are preparing for a fifth successive finals appearance, although they have not won the tournament since the back-to-back successes of 1982 and 1984.

Worse still, the last two tournaments have ended at the first hurdle, with the last edition in Israel particularly embarrassing given they returned home without even a point.

Southgate’s men look well-placed to right some wrongs, though, and bookmakers make them second favourites behind Germany to triumph in the Czech Republic.

James Ward-Prowse is among the key men and, having come through the national team ranks, insists there is no inferiority complex or historical burden that comes with donning the Three Lions.

“Playing for England is the best thing for us as players,” said the 20-year-old, whose first memory of the national team was the 2002 World Cup.

“Although we haven’t had that experience of winning trophies as a country, that’s all in the past and we’re trying to look forward.

“We want to change that perception of us as players by being successful and winning a trophy. I loved football growng up and my dad told me all about 1966. It would be great to do something like that.”

The squad certainly appears to have the togetherness and ability to do that, with last summer’s Toulon tournament helping to strengthen the players’ bond.

The Young Lions reached the semi-finals in the south of France, where Ward-Prowse was named third best player and scooped the goal of the tournament award for his exceptional free-kick against Brazil.

“It was one I will never forget and it really gelled us together as a team,” he said. “The perception that people have of young English players is not great.

“We want to show that isn’t the case. We want to play for England and do the country proud.”