IT WOULD be unfair to say Jack Stephens doesn’t care.

The defender has endured, arguably, the most difficult stage of his career to date and is now on the road to redemption.

You have to go back to last season’s trio of matches in February against Burnley, Cardiff and Arsenal to understand how difficult things got for him.

He gave a penalty away against Burnley in the final moments to allow them to nick a point, the 25-year-old then scored a crucial goal against Cardiff a week later, only to make the mistake that saw the Welsh side hit a 90th minute winner.

Stephens then travelled to Arsenal and didn’t cover himself in glory, with Saints being beaten 2-0.

Although he didn’t realise it at the time, and looking back at it now, he can see just how badly it affected him.

“I care enormously. I’ve got a lot of pride playing for and representing this club,” reflected Stephens. “Sometimes it’s difficult in football because players get labelled that they don’t care and that they are mercenaries.

“I’ve been here nine years now and it’s become a part of me. I’ve got a natural interest in this club doing well.

“That week was probably the toughest I’ve had to experience. I gave the penalty away at Burnley the week before and then we had the Cardiff game.

“It was just so hard to get my head around it. Overall, I thought I’d done well but you are judged on mistakes.

“It took me quite a while to get over that, but that Cardiff one was tough. Looking back now you always say you are fine and start focusing on the next match.

“But I probably did lose confidence off the back of that. We played Arsenal in the next game and I had an absolute shocker.

“I remember looking back at the build-up to the Arsenal game and I never really sort of addressed the problem after the Burnley and Cardiff games and it just sort of carried on.

“If I addressed it earlier I might have been able to put it to bed. That’s something I’ve been working on a lot and I feel like it’s improved my mental side of the game.”

As a consequence of those performances, Stephens found himself out of the team and wondering whether he was going to be handed another chance.

Like most people would do in that situation, the former Plymouth player turned to his parents to seek advice and help him process what had happened.

The 25-year-old goes back to Cornwall as often as he can, knowing that when he returns home, he won’t be treated like a Premier League footballer, he’ll always be Jack.

“It’s always nice to get back down there and get back to some sort of normality because you can lose yourself in football – you get wrapped up in a little bit of a bubble,” he continued.

“I’ve got a few people who I talk to, but my main port of call is my dad.

“We talk sport non-stop – he’ll phone me up and start talking about any sport that’s been on the telly.

“At the moment he keeps ringing me and telling me about all of the VAR decisions, asking me if I’ve seen all of them.

“I’ve had some good chats with my mum as well. She’s really helped.

“She doesn’t say much to be honest, but there have been one or two chats I’ve had with her that have really hit me, and it’s helped me a lot. When she does say something, it sticks with you.”

With the help of his family and friends, Stephens was able to head into last summer’s pre-season knowing he had the chance to show boss Ralph Hasenhuttl that he deserved to be in the first team.

This resulted in his name being on the teamsheet for Saints’ opening Premier League match of the campaign.

However, Hasenhuttl’s side lost 3-0 in an appalling display and Stephens found himself out in the wilderness once again.

His next appearance came when he was substituted on against Leicester at half time, with the Foxes already well on their way to scoring nine.

Stephens was then given the chance to prove himself in the Carabao Cup tie with Man City just a few days later, which turned out to be the start of his road to redemption.

Saints lost 3-1, but it was Stephens who offered them a slim chance of a comeback when he headed home in the second half.

Since that match, the defender has started every game and has an air of confidence about his play.

When Everton were beating Saints at St Mary’s earlier in the month, it was Stephens who stood up and let his feelings be known by haranguing his teammates.

Reflecting on getting back into the team, he added: “I had to go into the Man City game with a selfish mindset and prove that I’m good enough to play for the club.

“I just felt like it was maybe my last chance to get back in the team and to stay in the team.

“It was a long time since I’d played, and it was starting to feel like maybe it wasn’t going to happen for me.

“I’ve had my doubters, I think that’s far to say. For me, there is that little bit of I’ve got something to prove and I want to prove it.

“I want to show that I’m good enough to play for this football club and that I can play centre-half for this team.

“I’m confident in my abilities and the people around me are confident in my abilities - but there is that little of me bit where I want to prove people wrong.”

With the pressure of being a Premier League player intensifying as the season goes on, Stephens has managed to find a way to switch off - although it doesn’t sound like it’s going so well.

He’s started playing tennis with Oriol Romeu who, according to Stephens, fancies himself as the next Rafael Nadal.

It can only be a coincidence that one of the defender’s favourite professional athletes is Roger Federer, with this adding to his budding rivalry with Romeu.

“I’ve played tennis with Ori a few times and that’s good fun,” reveals Stephens.

“I’ve got this vision when I play that I’m unbelievable but I’m not that good. If I had a few lessons, I could win a few games.

“The first time me and Ori played was in the summer and I hadn’t played for about six years and he beat me 6-0, 6-0.

“When he plays he likes to think he’s Rafael Nadal.

“He’s quite good actually to be fair to him, but he’s been getting lessons on the quiet which is stitching me up.

“He’ll have two or three lessons, decides he wants to give me another game and then absolutely batters me.”

As well as his admiration for Federer, it turns out that Stephens has looked closely at England cricketer Ben Stokes’s mindset.

Often devouring any sport that is on TV, he’ll look for elements of their mental strength that he can try and add to his mindset.

“I like to read about what they do and watch how they approach things.

“There’s more of an emphasis on the mentality in those games and I think there is so much room for it in football.

“If you take Ben Stokes as an example, when he went in to bat in the Ashes, he had to go in and stay in to start with.

“I think he scored maybe three or four runs off 70 balls. He went in as a defensive player and then had to wake up the next day and flick a switch to adjust and start attacking.

“That mentality is just unbelievable.”

Not only is Stephens content with changing his mindset, but he is also actively trying to help young footballers who are contemplating giving up.

Football Families is an initiative, led by Adam Wilde and Louis Langdown from A.F.C. Totton, that focuses on youngsters that have been released from academies.

It aims to provide them with an opportunity to remain in the game, with so many footballers failing to make the cut at the professional level.

Despite Stephens not having to go through rejection as a youth player, he has seen first hand just how painful it can be.

“There are so many players that fall out of the game due to a lack of confidence or by losing interest when you get released,” explained Saints’ defender.

“There are players I’ve played with that have just fallen out of the game through confidence and a lack of opportunities.

“So many young players that have played for a club for like 10-15 years, through all the youth teams, can then be told that it’s the end of the road.

“I’m lucky to have never experienced that, but I’ve been around players that have experienced it and it can be really tough.

“It’s so important to help players have these options and to give them guidance to what their next step is.”