Defender discusses life away from football, mental toughness and his passion for other sports.
When Jack Stephens headed home James Ward-Prowse’s corner to register a late consolation goal for Southampton against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup, there was an air of defiance about his celebration.
All of his previous four Saints goals have meant more, but this one felt like a line in the sand moment as the defender beat his chest and clenched his fist in front of the travelling fans at the Etihad Stadium as he ran back for the restart.
It had been a turbulent few days leading up to the cup tie. Manager Ralph Hasenhüttl and his team were still coming to terms with the events at St Mary’s against Leicester City, ahead of perhaps the toughest challenge in European football, Man City away, twice in the same week.
But when Hasenhüttl called for a return to basics, for maximum effort, passion and commitment, he knew he could count on Stephens.
Saints’ no 5, an old-school heart-on-sleeve type of character, admits containing his emotions doesn’t always come naturally, but is a necessary tool to roll with the constant highs and lows professional football brings.
Scoring a goal. Making a mistake. Starting line-up. Out of the squad. Fit. Injured. Bought. Sold. It’s a mental roller coaster that can be hard to comprehend if you’re not inside the bubble.
“I show my emotions quite a bit in the game – sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not so good,” Stephens admits. “I don’t think that will ever leave me.
“It’s important that I keep it at a good level, but I think it’s good to have emotion because it shows that you care.
“It’s been a frustrating time – really frustrating. I think everyone could see that frustration leaving me with the celebration.
“It was just a bit of weight lifted off my shoulders, even though it’s not really my job to score goals, but it’s nice to chip in when I can.”
Stephens says that frustration can be traced back to last season.
“I think last year, mentally, I was struggling a bit with football,” he reveals. “I was having a bit of a tough time on the pitch. I was letting it get to me a little bit and my performances probably showed that.
“I didn’t let it affect my life outside of football – I was fine, I was happy, but obviously football is my job and it’s my life.
“I think it happens to every sports player – you have difficult times. As footballers, there are constant ups and downs.
“It’s sometimes difficult to deal with that, because one minute your emotions are sky high and the next minute you’re rock bottom.”
He points to his family and friends back in Torpoint, Cornwall, where Stephens grew up and still loves to visit, which offers a release from the pressures of the day job.
Over the summer, he says, he had to “reset”.
“It was nice to have that break,” he explains. “I gave myself the best opportunity of coming back ready for pre-season.
“I just wanted to try to improve as many aspects of my game as possible, but especially the mental side – trying to be mentally strong and really mentally driven to reach my goals.
“I’m lucky enough I’ve got good family around me and good friends who have believed in me, so I just have to take their advice and believe in myself.”
Initially, at least, pushing the reset button seemed to work. Of Hasenhüttl’s central defenders, only Jan Bednarek played more pre-season minutes than Stephens, who was duly named in the starting line-up for the 2019/20 opener at Burnley.
It was a positive beginning after wiping the slate clean, but two goals for the hosts in seven second-half minutes at Turf Moor resulted in a change of formation that saw Stephens substituted. It would be 11 weeks before he was selected again.
Another temporary high was followed by extended disappointment.
“Over the summer your aim is to be in the team for that first game – that’s everyone’s aim,” he said.
“For me, there was speculation about my future, but I just wanted to really knuckle down and make sure I was in that team for that Burnley game.
“The game didn’t go to plan for the team. The manager’s made changes and you have to deal with that, but it was hard and frustrating not playing for so long after that first game.
“You just have to try and stay strong mentally, keep doing the right things and show people why you feel like you deserve to be playing.”
When he did return, it could not have been in tougher circumstances.
“I had to be very patient, waiting so long for my opportunity, but when it did come, it probably came when I didn’t want it,” he reflects. It’s a refreshingly honest admission.
That’s because Stephens’s comeback game, when it arrived, would be as a half-time substitute against Leicester, by which time Saints already trailed 5-0.
“As much as I was desperate to play, that’s a game where you don’t really want to come on. But it drove me on, and it inspired me to want to be in the team for the next game.”
Football, as discussed, has a funny habit of bringing you back down to earth with a bump, but can also hoist you back up when you least expect it.
For Stephens, out of adversity came opportunity, and he was restored to the starting line-up for the cup tie at City, where he contributed to a vastly improved defensive showing and even found the net at the other end.
Crucially, he had done enough to keep his place for the Premier League meeting at the Etihad Stadium. This was the chance he really wanted.
jack stephensat school, i played every sport i could, just to get me out of class. that's pretty much the only reason i did it!
Stephens spends much of his downtime watching sports, often not football, and he tells of how he prepared for the game by watching England in the Rugby World Cup final in the team hotel.
“I literally watch every sport on telly,” he says. “Golf, cricket, tennis, rugby… whatever is on really.
“It’s good watching other sports because you can learn from them. The rugby was nearly a perfect World Cup, but we got beaten by the better side on the day – I think South Africa deserved to win.
“I don’t think anyone else (in the Saints squad) really got involved with the rugby. Maya took an interest, with it being in Japan, but I think he was just jumping on the bandwagon!
“At school, I played every sport I could, just to get me out of class. That’s pretty much the only reason why I did it! I quite enjoyed rugby – I wasn’t very good but I used to kick it a lot.
“I played tennis at school and a little bit of cricket. Other sports have always interested me – I was always alright at most of them, but never good enough to do anything properly.”
It’s clear this passion for competition plays a key role in helping him switch off from his own career, but football is never far away.
He smiles to himself as he remembers the Cricket World Cup final in the summer.
“It was one of the best days of sport and we were flying back from Austria,” he laughs. “The British Grand Prix was on, which [Lewis] Hamilton won, the Wimbledon final and the Cricket World Cup final. I had about four devices on the go!
“We literally took off and England needed maybe 30 to win, so we were thinking, ‘there’s no way we can get that.’
“Then we landed and we were world champions! But even then, we didn’t know what had happened, so when I got back I literally watched the whole match. Then I woke up the next morning and watched it again – it was incredible.
“That was one of the best sporting moments I’ve ever seen, and then six weeks later I saw probably the best sporting moment I’ve ever seen – when Ben Stokes pretty much played against Australia on his own.”
Stephens could talk about Stokes – his pick for Sports Personality of the Year – and his Ashes heroics for hours, but the point is that watching other sports helps him maintain the “good level” he aims for in himself, emotionally.
When things aren’t going well at work, everybody needs a form of escapism. At the moment, though, the plateau is beginning to take on an upward curve again.
“I hope so,” he says, but by now he knows not to tempt fate. “Obviously I want to stay in the team as long as possible – I want to play every game – but we’ve got a lot of quality in the squad.
“I’ve played the last three games, but I can’t guarantee that I’m going to play the next one, so it’s just all about making the most of the opportunity, and giving absolutely everything to try to hold on to that shirt.”