The Cornishman discusses life away from Southampton, and his extra motivation to keep his place in the backline.
Standing at the wheel of a boat on The Solent, Jack Stephens is reminded of home.
For years, the defender relied on crossing choppy waters to play football, something he believes owes much to his independence since moving away from home at the tender age of 17.
To get from Torpoint, the small Cornish town where he grew up, to Plymouth, where his football education took off, Stephens would have to jump on the ferry.
Even now, when he goes back to visit friends and family, he finds himself at the mercy of the temperamental vessels.
“It’s not so bad for me, because I only have to get it once or twice when I go back, but if you’re using it every day there’s always something wrong with them,” he chuckles.
“There’s supposed to be three, but I’d probably say for ten months of the year there is only two on – one is always broken and being sent away to be fixed.
“All my friends and family are always complaining about the ferries!”
Stephens was already playing league football by the time he left Argyle, having made six appearances for his local club, all under former England midfielder Peter Reid.
But his less than glamorous commute to work ensured his feet remained firmly on the ground.
“I still wasn’t driving – I used to walk down to the ferry, which was about ten minutes from my house, and get the ferry across to Plymouth,” he said.
“Sometimes my mate would pick me up, if he was feeling nice enough, but sometimes he’d make me walk!
“On the way home, I’d try to get a lift, but again, sometimes I’d have to walk back, which was a bit of a nightmare.
“I think that gives you a good grounding, having to go through little things like that, rather than relying on other people and having everything given to you. It was good fun.”
From a town of around 8,000 inhabitants and playing for a club on its knees financially, moving three hours from home to Southampton, with a population closer to a quarter of a million people, was as big a transition between League One clubs as you could ever expect to find.
It was a culture shock for the 17-year-old.
“At first, I struggled,” he admits, and understandably so. “I settled in really quickly at the club, and off the pitch I had good digs and I really enjoyed it there, but at the same time you’re used to being at home, seeing your mates all the time and seeing your family.
“It was strange coming from a close-knit environment in Torpoint to a big city like Southampton, where you don’t really know anyone apart from the lads you’re playing with.
“Down there, you walk along the street and you see everyone. I went home the other week and I only popped out to the shop, but it took about an hour!
“I saw about four or five different people I hadn’t seen for ages, and you end up having a chat.
“It’s nice in that way, because you know you’re going to see someone you know, but I haven’t grown up here, so I don’t have that. It’s very different.”
Craving familiarity, Stephens resisted the temptation to visit too often.
“I didn’t go back for about six weeks – that was the best thing I did,” he says, with conviction.
“I think if you keep going back, that makes it worse sometimes. It was hard going through that, but once I did, I was absolutely flying.
“When I go home now, it’s surprising for me how many people take an interest and know what’s going on.
“I didn’t know anyone down there who supported Southampton. Now, I see lots of people who want us to do well and always look for the results.
“It’s a nice feeling for me, knowing they genuinely take an interest in how I’m doing and how the club’s doing.”
It may have been a rapid rise for the teenager, but Stephens is quick to point out it wasn’t always plain sailing in his early years.
“Living in Torpoint, all my mates went to the same school, we all grew up together and no one really went anywhere else.
“Living there and playing for Plymouth, I’d spend three or four nights a week going to training, so I didn’t see my mates as much from the age of about 14 or 15.
“I wouldn’t say that was hard, because I was doing what I loved and I was obsessed with football, but there were times when it wasn’t nice.
“I went through a few dodgy spells in football around 15 or 16, when I didn’t really want to carry on.
“You just go through stages of not enjoying it. I was in one of the first age groups that they (Plymouth) stopped lads playing for their local side as well, and that was tough. I missed playing football with my mates on a Saturday.”
Stephens thinks the world of his school mates, who remain close friends, and his path to the Premier League has never threatened to break that bond.
In a town where everyone knows everyone, it’s impossible to hide, and the 24-year-old admits it was probably a blessing that he left before he could be led astray.
“I was lucky that I moved when I was 17 – right on the cusp of those sorts of things happening.
“I didn’t really have the opportunity to get sucked in and have to make those decisions.
“There were parties going on at 15 and 16, and I would miss them, but at that time it wasn’t something that overly appealed to me.
“I wanted to see my mates, but I used to play on Sundays, and I was religious with my routine.
“I was quite obsessed with how much sleep I got – it would play on my mind if I didn’t get enough sleep.
“I’ve definitely got better with age with that. Since I was 16 or 17, I’ve always been pretty good at being a bit more flexible with my routine, rather than being set every day on what’s got to happen and if it doesn’t, I can’t perform. That’s a bad mindset to have, I think.”
From dedicating his upbringing to football, Stephens has spoken before about his struggles when he hasn’t played – particularly a loan spell to Middlesbrough when he was 21, where he made only one league appearance.
“It’s certainly easier to cope (with not playing) when you’re only three hours from home, instead of seven hours from home!” he jokes.
By his own admission, he’s had to be patient at Saints. His seven-year association with the club has yielded 57 appearances in all competitions – all in the last two years – and three goals, all scored in separate matches in the space of a week midway through last season.
Having left Torpoint behind, there have been times when Stephens has found himself missing out on the reason he made the move in the first place – he wasn’t playing enough football.
“I think I am dealing with it better now, but it’s not nice when you’re not playing,” he says.
“People will look at it from the outside and say ‘you’ve got the best job in the world, I’d love to sit on the bench for Southampton,’ or ‘I’d get paid to train all week and sit in the stand, no problem!’
“It’s horrible. You feel like you’re cheating the club or cheating yourself by not playing. Obviously, you’re not, but you just feel like you’re not contributing to the team.
“You can contribute in training and in the dressing room, but there’s only so much you can do in that regard when you’re not playing. It’s tough.
“I think that’s something I have worked at. When you’re not playing, it’s hard to be positive, because you’re frustrated and you’re not happy, but you can’t have a negative impact on another player.
“If I’m moaning to another player, it might give them negative thoughts, which means they’re not feeling positive about training or the next game.
“I might be different at home, but, especially this season, I’ve been a lot better when I’ve not been playing – in a positive way.”
jack stephenspeople will look at it from the outside and say 'you've got the best job in the world, i'd love to sit on the bench for southampton,' or 'i'd get paid to train all week and sit in the stand, no problem!' it's horrible. you feel like you're cheating the club or cheating yourself by not playing.
It’s hard to imagine Stephens getting too down on himself when he has been left out, such is his upbeat demeanour around Staplewood.
“Sometimes you feel like you have to put it on,” he confesses. “Naturally you’re disappointed and frustrated, but you’ve got to try to put a smile on your face, still enjoy yourself and be positive around the rest of the boys.
“When you are playing, if you see someone moaning, you just think ‘I wish he’d stop being so negative.’
“You have to look at it from other people’s point of view; look at those who are playing and think ‘what do they need from me, how do they need me to act, and how do they want me to be around the place?’
“There’s nothing worse than watching when you know you’ve got something to give. Sometimes you’ve just got to accept the decision that’s been made, keep grafting, keep working hard and wait for your chance.”
For Stephens, that chance came ten days ago at Bournemouth – one he seized with both hands as part of a confident defensive display in which Saints kept a clean sheet at the expense of a team still only outscored by the Premier League's top four this season. He followed that up with another shutout against Newcastle United at St Mary's.
“I think every game is an opportunity to show what you can do. When you train all week, you want to play on the Saturday – that’s why we play football and that’s why we’re in the game,” he added.
“I got my chance, and it was important I put in a solid performance – for myself really, because it’s no good saying ‘I’m frustrated and I want to play’, and then when you get your chance, you blow it.
“That’s when people say ‘that’s why you’re not playing.’ It’s important to take your opportunities and I feel like I’ve given myself a good platform to build on, so hopefully I can kick on.
“To a certain extent I feel like this is my time, but you’ve still got to earn the right to be the man to play.
“For me, it’s about proving yourself every day and trying to show you’re the right man for that position.
“Waking up on a Saturday, knowing you’re going to be playing at three o’clock, is one of the best feelings in the world.
“To get back in was nice, but now it’s up to me – I’ve got to work even harder to keep the shirt.”
Maintaining the team's improved defensive resolve could lead to Stephens earning the run of starts he craves.
If he can achieve that, maybe he should treat himself to a holiday over the next international break?
“I do say to myself ‘next time I’ll go away and get some sun,’ but when it comes to it, I just can’t wait to get home!” he laughs. Even the Torpoint Ferry won’t put him off.
“I never regret going home. It’s nice to go down for three or four days and be away from football to take my mind off things and enjoy my time down there.
“To be fair, the last two international breaks the weather has still been lovely, so it’s still like going abroad!”