The zero to hero story
24th of February 2019: Jack Stephens makes a costly mistake in a 2-0 defeat against Arsenal that leaves Southampton in the Premier League relegation zone and leads to mounting critics of the central defender.
31st of January 2020: After a majestic couple of months that has helped his side up to 9th, Jack Stephens is nominated for the Premier League January Player Of The Month alongside the likes of Sergio Aguero, Jordan Henderson and Allison.
It’s been quite the turnaround.
Danny Ings has been banging in goals for fun, Nathan Redmond has been getting back to his best, Stuart Armstrong has added that something that was previously missing to the side, but few people seem to be talking about Jack Stephens, at least not in the wider media.
So I thought someone needs to give Stephens the recognition he deserves and this seems like the perfect opportunity to eulogise over the 26-year old who has well and truly come of age.
Stephens joined the club from Plymouth Argyle in 2011 and made his Premier League debut during the 2016/17 campaign following a number of loan spells in the Football League.
He was then in and out of the team under various managers over the next few seasons but struggled to impress any of the gaffers enough to warrant a regular spot at the heart of defence.
That was the same case when Ralph Hasenhuttl arrived midway through last season with the Austrian head coach preferring Jannik Vestergaard, Jan Bednarek and Maya Yoshida in his back-three.
However, Stephens would eventually force his way into the side replacing Yoshida in the middle of the defensive unit with his ability on the ball giving him the edge over the popular Japanese defender.
Many fans still weren’t convinced though with his confidence in possession often misjudged which led to him making mistakes that would often be punished.
The perfect example of this came in a 2-0 defeat at Arsenal last season when a miscued back pass from Stephens led to the Gunners’ second and as mentioned earlier, this left saints in the relegation zone.
The former England Under-21 international had a torrid first 45 minutes at the Emirates that included gifting them their second goal before being brought off at half-time which led to a barrage of negative comments aimed at the defender.
Hasenhuttl wasn’t giving up on Stephens so easily though and had these encouraging words for the centre-back after the defeat:
“It was a step back for Jack in his development against Arsenal and he knows that. I am far away from booing a player on my team or not trusting him anymore, the fact is that he is a young player from the Southampton Way and that means he will learn from this and stop the mistakes.”
This didn’t stop Stephens being dropped for the next game against Fulham however with Yoshida coming back into the side.
Bednarek has started every game for Hasenhuttl since his arrival so it has been a case of Vestergaard, Yoshida and Stephens competing for the other one/two places in the central defence.
And it looked highly unlikely at this point that Stephens would be the one to win this battle with him now firmly the fourth choice centre-half at the club.
He did get back into the side last campaign though with his next start coming against Newcastle in April, although this was largely because of an injury to Vestergaard, but he got brought off at half-time again in a 3-1 defeat.
The manager kept the faith in him for the remainder of the season as he then played 90 minutes against Watford and Bournemouth in a back-three before partnering Bednarek in a back-four against West Ham in a 3-0 defeat and Huddersfield in a 1-1 draw.
These were the last two games of the season with Saints already safe and Hasenhuttl was appearing to experiment with his selections and formations, and you could’ve forgiven him from giving up on this system with these disappointing performances.
So Stephens partnering Bednarek at the centre of defence accumulated two poor results – that must be the end we see of that then, right?
Well that seemed likely earlier last year as the back-three was then restored for the new campaign with Stephens starting in the middle of it, as he did for much of the previous campaign, at Burnley but he had a torrid time in Lancashire.
The main low point of his afternoon was a slip early on that led to Burnley putting the ball in the back of the net before the goal was disallowed.
Mistakes kept creeping into his game as the match went on and patience was wearing thin from supporters after seemingly carrying on his poor form into the new season.
Stephens then got dropped from the entire squad for the next game against Liverpool with Yoshida coming in to replace him once more.
The 26-year old then continued to be left out of the starting line-up for every single game up until the 9-0 capitulation against Leicester at the end of October – a full 10 games out of the side.
Bednarek, Yoshida and Vestergaard were the defenders that evening and the latter two were the big victims of this defeat with Stephens and Kevin Danso coming in to play the next game against Manchester City in the League Cup.
Stephens was restored in the middle of the back three for the next two league games against Manchester City again and Everton, although both matches were defeats and the Everton loss proved to be the real turning point in the season for both Southampton and Jack Stephens.
Saints were really poor in losing 2-1 at home to a struggling Everton side and that brought a change in system which resulted in the back three/five becoming a back four.
Jack Stephens partnered Jan Bednarek, with Ryan Bertrand and Cedric Soares the two full-backs, for the next game at Arsenal and Saints would’ve felt that they should’ve won in an almightily impressive performance before being denied by a late equaliser.
That back line has become rather familiar since the cruel draw at the Emirates with it proving to be a key component of the successful upturn in form that followed.
And a big part of this surprising turnaround was the equally unlikely turnaround of Stephens’ Saints career after a simply superb couple of months that followed.
Vital victories against Watford and Norwich followed but it was really the final game before Christmas Day in a 3-1 win at Aston Villa that sparked this incredible run of results and performances, with Stephens’ role in this a pivotal aspect.
His afternoon at Villa Park consisted of a well taken headed goal, a superb defensive header in a dangerous position and a bursting run into the opposition box that caused havoc for the opposition – and these runs out of defence would become a feature of his play.
A rare clean sheet was to follow at Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day before an exemplary performance in a 1-0 win over Spurs on New Year’s Day.
Another aspect of his play that was becoming more apparent was his incisive balls either through the midfield or up to the striker to kick-start dangerous attacks – perfectly illustrated by the assist for the winning goal against Spurs.
Another example of this came in the 2-0 win at Crystal Palace following Nathan Redmond’s excellent opening goal. The winger got all the headlines for the skill and finish, but Stephens’ ball up to him wouldn’t have been seen by many but his football brain and ability allowed him to execute it.
These set of consistent selections since the Leicester defeat have culminated in Stephens achieving his 100th Saints appearance against Spurs last time out in the FA Cup fourth round replay.
And despite being the victim of an unfortunate own goal for Tottenham’s opener, it was another solid performance to mark the occasion.
After all those negative comments aimed at Stephens 12 months ago, it is a completely different story now with many supporters giving him the title of the ‘English Maldini’.
So, from being berated by supporters to becoming a fan favourite – Stephens is an inspiration to any footballer struggling for form and confidence.
You would’ve been bonkers for suggesting that Stephens could be in line for an England call-up 12 months ago but alas here we are in the build up to Euro 2020 and Gareth Southgate could do a lot worse than to look at the 26-year old.
We can only hope that he continues this rich vein of form for the remainder of the season and beyond as he continues to prove the doubters wrong.
Luke Weir – Saintsworld columnist