England’s spine will make or break their bid for Euro 2024 glory

Harry Kane with John Stones race during training

Gareth Southgate’s back surgery may be the source of some Euro 2024 concern, but it is England’s spine that will be the key to success.

England have lost only one game when goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, John Stones, Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane have all started together.

Southgate, the England manager, has been forced to take chances at the back with central defender Harry Maguire ruled out of the tournament with injury and left-back Luke Shaw travelling despite being short of fitness.

But the good news is that Stones has shaken off an illness scare in time for England’s famous five to start together for the first time since last October, as England prepare to kick-off their Euros campaign against Serbia on Sunday.

The last time Pickford, Stones, Rice, Bellingham and Kane started together was a 3-1 victory over Italy last autumn and England’s five-man spine have lost only the World Cup quarter-final against France when all have started.

Since then, England have beaten Italy twice, the first of which was away in Naples, and Ukraine. If Southgate’s team are to go all the way in Germany, then it appears the Three Lions spine will be the core strength.

Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice of England battle for possession during a training session at Spa & Golf Resort Weimarer Land on June 13, 2024 in Blankenhain, Germany
Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice, the key parts of England's midfield, train in Germany this week - Getty Images/Eddie Keogh

England’s rivals at the Euros, hosts Germany, France, Portugal and Spain all have strong spines, but it is hard to make a case against Southgate’s being the best since the World Cup in Qatar.

On England’s spine of himself, Stones, Rice, Bellingham and Kane, Pickford said: “It’s not too bad, is it? If you look, Stonesy won the Champions League, the treble last year and the Premier League four times in a row. Jude’s won the Champions League this year, Harry Kane scores goals for fun, England’s record goalscorer, and Declan has had a fantastic season at Arsenal.

“So the spine is crucial, but it’s more than the spine, it’s about the whole team and everyone is working together to be at our best.

“Stonesy, I remember us playing [together] in Germany, Under-19s level. He made the step up early and I’ve known him for a long time. Top player. He’s one of the best centre-backs in the world. For England, he’s been quality for the amount of caps as well.

“I’ll always say the spine looks really good, but it’s the 11 and the other lads who are on the bench who are ready to come on. We are all training and preparing ourselves right to be available on that pitch come game day. All of the messages the manager and the staff put out to us are that everyone’s got to be ready for the game. Whoever it may be, we’re all prepared.”

Jordan Pickford flexes his biceps in front of a sprinkler during training in Germany
Jordan Pickford is the base of England's spine - Getty Images/Eddie Keogh

Stones, who heckled Pickford from the back of the room and joked that he wanted to stay and ask his team-mate questions ahead of the 30-year-old’s media duties, said: “We know the talent at Gareth’s disposal.

“To have players, and in my opinion world-class players, that have been in big games and big tournaments, felt the buzz around playing in these big games … and against teams you could say on paper we should beat, which are always the hardest games.

“That’s the important and crucial thing why I believe we’ve been successful in showing respect to everyone and the players that have been in those situations before – we all need to come together and help everyone who’s out there on the pitch.”

Former England striker Wayne Rooney named Pickford and Kane as England’s most important players during the Euros, which prompted a proud response from Everton’s goalkeeper.

“It’s obviously nice from Wazza because he’s a legend and I was lucky enough to play with him for Everton and England,” said Pickford. “As a young England fan, I grew up watching him at Euro 2004 and all that.

“It’s key. Goalkeepers are a key position. That’s why I’ll keep going on about the mental side of the game because I’m always ready for any action at any moment in the game.

“With Harry, we know what he can do in front of goal, he can get in, score and you know you’ve got a hell of a chance. He leads by example, the skipper.

“The professionalism he gives us, he is an example for us to look at on and off the pitch, and he is the record goalscorer. In training, it’s not nice for us goalkeepers, but you are practising against the best and that pushes us as well.”

Stones feared he broke foot and was so unwell he struggled to drink water

Stones feared he had broken his foot on the eve of the Euros, then was struck by a stomach bug so severe he struggled to drink water and eat while quarantined from the England squad.

The Manchester City centre-back is back in full training but has given Southgate a double injury scare in the week before the start of the tournament, firstly when Iceland striker Jón Dagur Thorsteinsson fell on his leg during the friendly defeat at Wembley.

Stones was able to train in England’s first session in Germany but had already started to feel poorly, then by the evening had a fever that saw him confined to his bedroom for a day.

“It was a real rough 36 hours. I didn’t feel great the day before in the open session but felt good enough and thought it would just pass and ended up ringing the doc in the early hours of the morning after being up for a few hours and couldn’t take it any more,” he said.

“I felt quite alone, to be honest, which you might not at home – no one around you and then being stuck in your room all day, no food, not much water because it was coming out again. It kind of puts into perspective, of health in general, how lucky I am over the years.

“It was difficult because I was having hot and cold sweats. I watched TV and spoke to my family most of the day which got me through it and the day seemed to go quite fast which I was glad about. Had it dragged out it would have been a lot worse.”

John Stones of England runs during a training session in Germany
John Stones gave his manager Gareth Southgate a double scare this week - Getty Images/Eddie Keogh

Southgate has wanted Stones to start against Serbia in Gelsenkirchen on Sunday, with his presence increasingly important after Harry Maguire was ruled out of the finals with a calf injury. Stones’s injury at Wembley saw him need strapping on his foot and was a concerning moment ahead of the finals, even if he carried on until half-time before being subbed.

“I knew it wasn’t my knee or my ankle, because of the mechanism in how I landed, it was almost like my big toe in the line straight down my foot and you think, ‘I have fractured it’,” he said. “You think the worst at the start and we got some scans back and [it was] really minor stuff and came through it, which is great.

“While on the pitch, it is one of those where you are trying to gauge and feel and it is a bit of a mind game as well – is it as bad as it is? Do you want to come off and it’s nothing, almost? – and I don’t like the thing of it being a friendly when the next game is a big one. The docs made the call at half-time and maybe they did the right one in the end.”

Stones says he is fully ready for Sunday’s clash at the Veltins Arena after undergoing extra work after sessions to catch up with the rest of the squad following his day away.

“I have been topping up after training today. I am on track with everyone else and am looking to do my extras to catch up on what I have missed out on and in the gym as well. I feel great physically. I am looking forward to it now,” he said.

Stones added that England players now believe they can win the Euros, rather than going into the finals hopeful of going far.

“I’m a big believer in not hoping we can win [but] believing we can win,” he said. “And having that feeling within you. I think that’s something that I’ve inherited over the years from winning a lot of trophies and being in big games and trying to pass that on. It’s a simple message, it’s nothing to do with football. I think all of us in the room hope we can win but believing is a totally different thing. That’s a powerful thing from what I’ve been involved in.”