Everton defender John Stones, formerly of Barnsley, believes England’s Under-21s have a real chance of ending years of disappointment by winning this summer’s European Championship.
Gareth Southgate’s side breezed through qualifying, dropping just two points and conceding two goals in 10 matches.
However, the national side have managed just one runners-up spot (in 2009) since last winning the tournament in 1984 but Stones is determined to change that.
“With the players we have it is going to be an exciting tournament and we will go into it looking to win it,” he said.
“Without getting ahead of ourselves we have to be positive and do that for the nation.
“There has been a lot of disappointment in recent years of this competition and hopefully we can rectify it this year.”
Stones’ outstanding season for Everton, despite sitting out a large chunk of the campaign after surgery on an ankle injury, earned him the club’s young player of the year award and has already led to him being linked with bigger Premier League teams.
The 20-year-old is keen to build on a promising two years since his £3million move from Barnsley.
“I’ve enjoyed it as I’ve played a lot of games and the more the better, even though I know it has not been the best season,” he added.
“I can take a lot from the ups and downs and the way we turned it around.
“Being out for three months with an injury you realise how much everything means to you.
“I am gaining a lot of experience and that is massive and as a person and a player I have matured a lot, especially this season.
“We are always trying to better ourselves. We said that last season and I know we’ve not lived up to that this season but we will work hard, come back and hopefully do well.”
Stones is the prime example of how youth can flourish under Roberto Martinez but the defender is not the only one to have benefited from the Spaniard’s approach.
Highly-rated 19-year-old Brendan Galloway made his first-team debut last weekend at West Ham while Luke Garbutt, who joined Stones in England’s Under-21 squad when it was named on Wednesday, has also had a breakthrough campaign with 10 appearances.
Garbutt, 21 today, is out of contract this summer but Stones believes there is no better place for him to continue his development.
“It is down to him (whether he signs a new contract),” he told Press Association Sport.
“When he has come into the team he has done really well and taken his chance and that is what you have to do as a player.
“I know he will come away with us with England Under-21s and look to put his stamp there as Luke Shaw is not going (Manchester United’s left-back is not fit).
“He will relish the chance to play, especially in tournament football, and hopefully bring that back to us next season.
“The gaffer gives us that chance and Luke knows that. He has a sensible head on his shoulders and knows what to do and I am sure this summer is going to help him out massively.”
Captain Phil Jagielka, who picked up a clean sweep of first-team awards with player of the year, players’ player and goal of the season, also praised Martinez’s approach to blooding more youngsters.
“We have a good bunch of lads (aged) 24 and down,” he said.
“We had 14 players who could have potentially won young player of the year and that is due to the fact a lot of the boys played against Krasnodar in the Europa League.
“It is nice to see the manager does expect a large chunk of his young lads to progress to the first team and it is nice Tyias (Browning) and Brendan have come through this season after Stonesy and Luke.
“It is important for a club like Everton that we bring people through in a regular basis.”
Stones won Everton’s young player of the year award while Brendan Galloway, who made his first-team debut against West Ham last weekend, was named under-21 player of the year.
Toffees captain Phil Jagielka had a clean sweep winning player of the season, player’s player and goal of the season for his long-range strike in the Merseyside derby at Anfield.
“It is always nice to win personal things but as captain of this team I’d have like to have won with us pushing for European and Champions League places,” said the England centre-back, formerly of Sheffield United.
“That would have made the award that more sweeter.
“We have quite a few young lads in the team so hopefully they will have learned just as much from this season as they did from last season.
“Considering the standards we set ourselves and we’ve had a bit of disastrous season, but we’ve actually picked up a decent amount of points and some good results along the way.
“It’s not been all doom and gloom; we expected to be higher up the table for the majority of the season but it never materialised.
“We are not that far away so we won’t beat ourselves up too much.”