London (AFP) – England defender John Stones has challenged his team to make their Euro 2020 “dream” come true when they face Italy in Sunday’s final.
Gareth Southgate’s side have reached the country’s first European Championship showpiece after 55 years without a major final appearance.
England will win just the second senior international honour in their history, after the 1966 World Cup, if they beat the Italians at Wembley.
Manchester City centre-back Stones admits it was hard to imagine England having this opportunity to make history when the tournament kicked off four weeks ago.
“It’s huge, with the final being at Wembley as well it’s even more special, something we could have only dreamt of at the start of the tournament,” Stones said on Friday.
“We’ve got this far now and we’ve grown throughout the tournament and not put too much pressure on ourselves. We’ve overcome some tough tests over the last few years.
“We’ve learned a lot of things and gained a lot of experience and that’s got us to where we are on Sunday. It’s a massive occasion.”
Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, Bobby Charlton and the rest of the England players who won the World Cup in 1966 remain iconic figures.
The potential to join that group as English sporting legends is not lost on Stones.
Asked if winning the tournament would change his life, Stones said: “I daren’t think!
“We all love the England team, growing up as fans, being able to play for them now, we absolutely cherish it.
“It’s a proud moment, hopefully I’ll get to be in the starting XI. It’s a special occasion.”
– ‘Unique quality’ –
After reaching the 2018 World Cup semi-finals, England have gone one step further this time.
Now they want to finish the job and end the country’s long trophy drought.
“On Sunday we’ll be out there fighting for everything, wanting to win that game,” Stones said.
“There’s a big prize at the end of it that we want to be on the receiving end of.”
Much of the credit for England’s revival since their humiliating Euro 2016 exit against Iceland goes to Gareth Southgate.
Southgate replaced Sam Allardyce as England boss and has overseen the introduction of a host of young talents who have gelled with more experienced stars like Stones, Harry Kane and Harry Maguire.
Stones believes Southgate’s invaluable ability to keep cool in high-pressure situations has rubbed off on the squad.
That was clear to see as England recovered to win 2-1 after falling behind for the first time in the tournament when Denmark struck in Wednesday’s semi-final.
“He has a unique quality of staying calm in situations and I think it passes through the team,” Stones said.
“The other day no one panicked, we stayed with the game plan and it worked out well. I don’t think we have to change anything with our preparation.”
Along with England, Italy have been the most impressive team in the tournament.
Stones is well aware of the quality in Roberto Mancini’s side.
“There’s two teams in this final and we both deserve to be there,” he said.
“Italy are defensively solid and a side that have lots of attacking flair.
“That’s what you want as a footballer, as a professional, to come up against these sort of teams and prove to yourself that you can outshine them.”