SAINTS defender Jack Stephens was centre of attention after scoring the winner for England Under-21s on his home ground on Thursday.

It was truly the first time in five years the 22-year-old has been centre of attention in any respect at St Mary’s, even if it was in national team colours.

The central defender has played just twice for Saints’ first team since joining in 2011.

However, after his exploits for the Young Lions, there is talk he could be about to make a breakthrough.

Stephens’ appearances so far have come almost five years apart, with time spent in-between out on loan at Swindon, Middlesbrough and Coventry.

His debut came in January 2012 in a 2-1 FA Cup victory at Coventry before a staggering wait of 45 months for his second appearance, which came last month - at right back - in Saints’ EFL Cup home win over Sunderland.

Since arriving in 2011 from Plymouth Argyle as a 17-year-old, Stephens has made most impact for the academy and on loan and has not been considered an option for the first team.

Although centre backs traditionally break through later, the Cornishman, under contract until the summer of 2019, has certainly had to bide his time.

But is his Saints career reaching a make-or-break point?

England Under-21s interim boss Aidy Boothroyd has recognised Stephens’ quality and has urged Claude Puel to see him as an option.

“Jack’s a really good player,” he said. “He is right on the periphery of his club team and you hope something like that catches the eye of his club manager (Puel) and gets him some more starts, but he has a bit to do because he has some good competition in front of him.

“He came with us to Toulon (the tournament England U21s won last summer).

“He was playing as a holding midfielder at Swindon, he was really good, and then he went to Coventry ... he’s been around a bit, he knows his way around the motorways.

“It’s just one of those where he just has to get some games.”

Stephens, despite his perceived juniority at Saints, actually has more than 70 appearances in the Football League and domestic cups.

In his first loan spell at Swindon in 2013/14 he played ten times, following that up a season later with 41 games for the Robins in League One.

Last term he failed to make an impact with Middlesbrough in the Championship, but dropped down to League One and made 16 appearances for Coventry in the second half of the campaign before returning to Saints.

He also has seven caps for England Under-21s and has been capped for the national team at under-18, 19 and 20 levels.

But all this experience and he’s still not in Puel’s thoughts, unless there’s major injury problems and he’s thrown in as cover.

That, perhaps, might be Stephens’ only route into more first team games at Saints.

He started out as a right back before Saints converted him into a centre back and has played at defensive midfield for Swindon.

That versatility could provide him with enough to stick in Puel’s thoughts, especially with the Frenchman always keen to rotate his squad.

Stephens can take heart from Sam McQueen’s breakthrough and as he says, with Saints’ willingness to give a chance to youngsters, there could still be opportunity yet.

“The good about this club is that you get opportunities at the next level,” he said. “Whichever level you’re at, they’re always looking to push you on and give you an opportunity.

“So, if you’re 16 and pushing into the under-18s, or 19 and getting into the under-23s, you always know there’s opportunities if you perform.”