IF there was any lingering doubt that Jason Puncheon’s Saints redemption was complete then it was well and truly dispelled on Saturday.
In one of the club’s most important games of the season, the winger produced a match-winning performance to lead his side to a 1-0 victory over Reading and lift them out of the Premier League relegation zone.
It was another virtuoso display from Puncheon, following on from his heroics in the 3-1 win at QPR a few weeks ago – a result that really ignited Saints’ season.
The transformation that the 26- year-old’s career has undergone in the last 12 months is remarkable.
Frozen out of the first-team reckoning for most of Nigel Adkins’ reign as manager, he settled his well-publicised differences with the club’s hierarchy in January and has emerged as an integral part of the side.
“It’s all about growing and maturing as an adult and a player, and I’m doing that now,” said Puncheon.
“The gaffer has given me a platform and given me a chance and I’ve grasped it with two hands.”
Puncheon lost his place in the team to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain shortly after Adkins’ appointment as manager in late 2010.
A succession of loan spells followed, with Puncheon even left out of the club’s 2011 pre-season tour, before he eventually returned to the fold earlier this year.
Although he was little more than an extra in the cast that secured back-toback promotions, the midfielder is now playing a starring role.
When asked how he had matured, Puncheon said: “It’s all a mental mind state. It was difficult for me to come back last year.
“As much as I was loaned out, I was coming back to a team that was winning week in, week out. The club were second in the Championship when I came (back) and were in the top two all season.
“It’s hard to come back in and hit the ground running the way the boys were. I knew coming back having a good pre-season would be the start for me and that’s what I needed.”
The catalyst for the turnaround in Puncheon’s career came last January when, frustrated at his lack of involvement, he launched into a rant on Twitter about chairman Nicola Cortese.
Puncheon accused Cortese of forcing him to train with the youth team, referring to him as “nicolina”, and stated that he would see out his contract playing for the reserves before leaving on a free.
That prompted the chairman to summon his player for a meeting, after which Puncheon apologised and was granted a clean slate.
“I wasn’t nervous about it,” said Puncheon of being hauled in for talks, adding that there “weren’t any choice words” from either party.
“We had a meeting, we spoke. The next day I was at training. That was the most important thing, for me to be settled and start playing again.”
While their relationship at one stage appeared to be in a state of disrepair, Puncheon insists he has changed his view of Cortese.
“People make out Nicola to be a stern, stubborn character but what he is is a man of his word,” said Puncheon. “You have to always give credit to that. He has a good driving force behind himself.
“When I joined I remember the day I signed he said this football club will be in the Premier League in five years time – it happened in three years.
“Me and him had clear-the-air talks and as far as I’m concerned that’s all history. I’m just pleased to get the chance and keep producing.