Hunched shoulders and a low centre of gravity; a wonderful propensity for an arcing and impressively precise cross; an eye for the top corner and not shy wielding of the killer pass in his repertoire; owner of the type of physical stature and receding hairline that meant he wouldn’t have looked at all out of place playing the part of a Detective Sergeant in The Bill. Steve Stone ticked all these boxes as a player.
Ask a friend to name the England squad for Euro 96 off the top of their head and Stone’s name might be one of the most elusive for them to recall. Equally cursed and blessed during his career, Stone slipped his native north-east’s net and was picked off by the prolific Nottingham Forest scouting team, signing professional terms in 1989 just as the club became a trophy-winning entity again, beating Luton in the League Cup final.
It would, however, take almost four years for Stone to earn his first-team debut. Suffering three separate leg breaks, the mercurial midfielder’s progress was repeatedly stunted, eventually making his bow – a goalscoring one – in February 1993, in a relegation six-pointer away to Middlesbrough.
Stone did enough to keep his place in Brian Clough’s struggling team, apart from during periods of injury. Despite the much-needed enthusiasm and renewed attacking endeavour he brought to Forest, relegation descended upon the City Ground at the end of the 1992/93 season. A clearly ailing Clough bade both the club and the game farewell.
Former Forest left-back, Frank Clark, took over as manager in the summer of ‘93, the first man other than Clough to lead the club since January 1975. Immediately absorbing the losses of Roy Keane, Nigel Clough and Gary Charles, added to the reverberations of the sales of Des Walker and Teddy Sheringham the previous summer, Clark did well to retain the services of Stuart Pearce.
Casting his eye across those that remained, perusing the contents of his youth and reserve ranks, and with a healthy transfer kitty thanks to the funds collated by the departures of Keane, Clough and Charles, Clark found himself in a unique position, both enviable and unenviable at the same time.
Not much more than 12 months on from having contested the 1992 League Cup final, two years beyond competing in the 1991 FA Cup final and three years after collecting a second successive League Cup win, Forest’s slide to relegation had been a rapid one. Despite the calibre of the players the club had lost between the summers of ’92 and ‘93, the Forest squad was still in reasonably rude health, as Clark began to structure a team that could return to the Premier League at the first time of asking.
With only a short blast of first-team experience under his belt, Stone fell under the radar of the vultures circling the City Ground, looking to pick off talented players who might not have the stomach for second-tier football.
Manoeuvring shrewdly, Clark made Stone a vital component of his rejuvenated team. Bringing in Colin Cooper and Des Lyttle to bolster his defence, swooping for the Norwegian midfield duo of Lars Bohinen and Alf-Inge Haaland, plus taking on the fragile personality yet outstanding talents of Stan Collymore, Forest suddenly had a powerful team. A strong and competitive division, Forest swept to automatic promotion as runners-up behind Crystal Palace, playing some wonderfully swift, counter-attacking football that could have been lifted straight from the pages of a Clough textbook.
Powered in attack by a magic triangle of Stone, Bohinen and Collymore, and kept secure by the stubborn insistence of Pearce, Cooper and Haaland, it wasn’t, however, an overnight success. Forest won only three of their first 12 league games, finally clicking into gear at the end of October, where the catalyst was a narrow derby day victory over Notts County.
Losing only a further four league games, and tripping out of both domestic cup competitions within a ten-day span in late-January, it left Forest with a clear run to promotion. Stone, after all the problems he had suffered with injury, missed only one game, repaying the club’s patience by helping them straight back to the top flight.
Stone took the step back up to the Premier League in his stride. Having only experienced struggle during the latter stages of the 1992/93 season, 1994/95 was an entirely different prospect. Strengthening with one significant major signing, that of Bryan Roy, the Netherlands international winger from Foggia, Clark largely placed his trust in those who led Forest to promotion.
With Stone down one flank and Roy down the other, Bohinen and Haaland dominating the midfield and Collymore powering in on goal, Forest were phenomenal. Topping the table in the early weeks of the campaign, they eventually finished third, gaining UEFA Cup qualification with it. A team that doesn’t get the credit it deserves, cast in the shadow of Kevin Keegan’s hypnotic yet ultimately flawed Newcastle United, the form that Stone showed took him into the England squad.
In October 1995, as part of Terry Venables’ build-up towards Euro 96, Stone won his first cap, appearing as a substitute at the Ullevaal Stadion in Oslo against Norway. One of those players who inexplicably took to international football as if they had played it before in a previous life, a month later he again climbed from the bench at Wembley against Switzerland, where he curled in a stunning effort to announce his candidature for a place in Venables’ squad for the finals.
His burgeoning international notoriety massaged by his escalating importance to the Forest cause, Stone arguably enjoyed the best form of his career in 1995/96. With the loss of Collymore to Liverpool and Bohinen to Blackburn – their replacements not hitting the heights their predecessors had – Stone became more and more pivotal.
Trailing in ninth, while the Premier League didn’t come as easily to Forest, in the classic difficult second album syndrome, in March they were handed two huge opportunities in cup competitions. An FA Cup quarter-final at home to Aston Villa was sandwiched between the two legs of a UEFA Cup quarter-final against Bayern Munich. Forest had seemingly turned back the clock and they were once again a big-hitting proposition.
A 2-1 defeat in Munich in the first leg against Bayern was viewed as a job well done. Whether this lulled Forest into a false sense of security, or if they had simply reached their natural limits, is open to debate, but in the wake of a 1-0 loss to Villa in the FA Cup and a startling 5-1 capitulation at the hands of Bayern, upon the banks of the River Trent, Forest were never quite the same team again.
Individually, Stone went from strength-to-strength. Vaguely reminiscent of the outrageously gifted John Robertson, he was increasingly drawing the interest of other clubs, inclusive of Manchester United and the spectre of a potential return home to Newcastle.
Scoring again for England on his first start, Stone enjoyed a run of games prior to Euro 96 that eased Dennis Wise out of the squad picture. Named as the natural back-up to Steve McManaman and Darren Anderton, he played cameo roles from the bench against Switzerland, Scotland and Spain as England flirted with glory during a balmy English summer, cast against a Britpop soundtrack. They would be the last games he would play for his country.
With the 1996/97 season just five games old, Stone succumbed to a knee injury that ruled him out for the rest of the campaign. It was both a collective and individual blow. In mid-table when he picked up his injury, Forest were relegated in his absence. His club in free-fall once more, his international career over – injuries again taking their toll – Stone aimed to regenerate his fortunes in the maelstrom of another bid for promotion. Now under the guidance of Dave Bassett and playing with a style that nobody really expected from the new manager, Forest clinched both promotion and the First Division title in a closely contested race.
Despite the spring with which Forest stepped back into the Premier League, there would be no repeat of the feats of 1994/95. Internal boardroom and dressing room battles raging, relegation once again beckoned Forest in 1998/99. Stone wasn’t there to witness the death throes, however.
In March, just before the transfer deadline, Stone was sold to John Gregory’s ambitious Aston Villa for £5.5m. A promising start was eventually disrupted by a spate of injuries. He appeared in the 2000 FA Cup final as a late substitute as Villa chased a 1-0 deficit. The following season was Stone’s most consistent for Villa, yet it was also the last campaign in which he remained injury-free.
The collection of major injuries sustained, now being added to by the types of pulls and strains associated to an English 30-something winger, he spent the final years of his career playing well, though intermittently, for Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth, helping them reach and maintain a place in the Premier League, before making Leeds his last port of call. At Elland Road, he was restricted to just 12 league games, struck down by tendonitis, Achilles problems and even battles with MRSA. Stone eventually called time on his playing career in December 2006.
Bookended by serious injury, he was almost a mirage of a player – his finest days coming in a Forest shirt between 1993 and 1996n and a bright yet agonisingly short England career that lasted less than a year, which encompassed the feelgood oasis of Euro 96.
Unfulfilled potential? I’d say not. A player who was equally cursed and blessed, a player who was a throwback from the past in an increasingly technical era, Stone was the generator of Forest’s mid-1990s revival, helped power the rise of Portsmouth, and was so very nearly part of a winning England team at Euro 96. There have been too few players of Steve Stone’s ilk to rise so high ever since.
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74