The problems were mounting up for John Stones. It was during a torrid 2019/20 campaign that things worsened and the way back looked long.

The walls started closing in on the Manchester City defender when he was overlooked for a one-off Champions League quarter-final with Lyon, which City lost 3-1, with Pep Guardiola favouring a back three of Aymeric Laporte, Eric Garcia and Fernandinho.

The signings of Nathan Ake from Bournemouth and Ruben Dias from Benfica signalled that Stones’ place in the pecking order was plummeting. Even nice words from the manager could not disguise the crossroads that Stones found himself at. “It was probably one of the hardest times of my career,” he says, reflecting on it all this week.

During that season, Stones started just one of City’s nine Champions League matches and was more often found on the bench or treatment table than on the pitch when it came to the Premier League.

Now, three years on, and the 29-year-old has bounced back to become a pillar of the Treble chasers. Guardiola’s deployment of Stones as a hybrid centre-back and deep-lying midfielder has possibly been the tactical manoeuvre of the season. Since the shift in February, City have not looked back.

Staying to fight it out at the club has paid dividends and the idea that City’s No 5 will not start against Inter Milan in the Champions League final on Saturday is unthinkable. “It was a big learning curve for me and maybe [made me] who I am today,” he says of his new role, which has quickly become instrumental in how City play.

Stones would not have been short of options had he tried to revive his career elsewhere — Arsenal and Chelsea were circling. “I never thought about that,” Stones admits. “I think as soon as you accept that — or have that mindset — then you have killed yourself. So, no, I always wanted to stay. I have stayed — and I absolutely love it.

Getty: Alex Livesey

“I wanted to prove myself. I didn’t say to anyone: ‘It was because I want to prove to you [I can do it]’. In anything, I think you have to prove to yourself first and foremost that you deserve to be here, that you are good enough to be here and show what you bring to the team. Everyone is so unique at City and I feel that’s why we’ve been so successful.”

The journey back to becoming a City regular in, arguably, the most complete team of Guardiola’s time in Manchester must make it feel all the sweeter? “I don’t really think about it but probably, yeah,” he says.

For me personally, if hopefully I can look back after Saturday with a winner’s medal, yeah, it will be super sweet I suppose. But ask me after that.”

Road back involved work, sweat and tears

It was a mixture of bad luck, poor timing, countless injuries and, ultimately, a downturn in form that contributed to Stones’s struggles. The breakdown of his relationship with his former partner also impacted his confidence. But the way in which he has rebuilt himself and reignited his career should be lauded.

Stones worked tremendously hard on his fitness, spending lots of time in the gym improving his core strength and flexibility — yoga proving particularly beneficial. Furthermore, he tweaked his sleep and lifestyle patterns and worked on his diet with nutritionists, leaving no stone unturned.

I went back to firstly looking at myself, being super critical of myself and what I could do better on the football pitch, and then looking into every fine detail: food, what food, training, what training, what extras,” Stones explains.

“It came down to doing stuff here [at the club] and then going home and doing work, even late at night, or straight after the training. All these kinds of specific things, finding these small margins and putting them all together to kind of break where I was at [at the time].

“I don’t think it was just that [Lyon] game [that hurt]. It’s any game you don’t play, or feel maybe that you should be playing. But I really do try and put a positive spin on that and use it to motivate me.”

Getty: Tom Flathers

There are still plenty of years ahead for Stones, both at City and for England. He is now at the peak of his powers and will be a player that Simeone Inzaghi’s men analyse closely before kick-off on Saturday. Limiting him and his passes weakens City.

People have always said, to be fair, from a young age that they can see me playing in midfield,” he says. “I think I did and still do love playing as a centre-half but I’ve absolutely loved this role as well. I think I have shown myself that I’m able to do it.

“Maybe I’m showing some attributes that I didn’t know I had but the manager has seen [something] in me and, ultimately, I’m just trying to show what I can do in there and help the team win with my attributes.”

Perseverance and adaptation mean Stones’s seventh season at City is proving to be his best yet.