JACK Stephens has staked a claim to become Saints’ first-choice centre-back after starting only 17 times in the league last campaign, with Ralph Hasenhuttl admitting: “Sometimes he is a little bit too nice, too calm, now when he is defending forward he is strong.”

The 27-year-old operated in four different positions from the start during the 2020-21 Premier League season as Hasenhuttl looked to find a way to plug gaps left by the injury crisis that ravaged the squad.

Some would have then thought that Jan Bednarek and Mohammed Salisu would be Saints’ starters in central defence, but Stephens has played every minute of the season so far including in the rotational team at Newport County.

It was his pressing up the pitch that snatched the ball off Bruno Fernandes to create the goalscoring opportunity, which saw Saints take the lead against Manchester United, eventually securing a point at St Mary’s last month.

Hasenhuttl insists he’s seen improvements in the six-foot one-inch tall Torpoint-born defender that make him “a very good centre-back.”

The Austrian manager said: “When Jack works on his defensive duels and is aggressive there, and nasty, then he is a very good centre-back.

“He is like a leader at the back at the moment, he has really fought for his position and doesn’t want to give it away so easily.

“I think at the moment he shows how important he can be for this club and this is what I need, a guy who is good on the ball but also wins his duels.

“This was sometimes the problems with Jack, that he is a little bit too nice, too calm and a little bit too less aggressive, now when he is defending forward he is strong and this is what I demand of the player, and what he needs to do consistently.”

Stephens has played more than 100 times in the Premier League for Saints, since joining from Plymouth Argyle back in 2011.

Setting the club back only a nominal fee in the thousands, he has turned out to be a very shrewd bit of business and his versatility has come in handy for Saints’ managers with the ability to operate in defensive midfield, and willing to operate as a full-back.

Stephens had represented England at youth levels regularly right up to under-21 yet never took the next step forward on the international stage, but looks to be embroiled in a battle to continue to convince his club manager that he’s the right man to lead Saints from the back.

Up next for Saints is West Ham at St Mary’s in the Premier League on Saturday.

Bednarek has impressed in Poland action during the break, while new signing Lyanco will be available for selection – Hasenhuttl has a choice on his hands.