WILL Smallbone made a long awaited appearance for Saints’ first-team with a second-half showing at Chelsea and “could have been the hero” following ten months on the sidelines with an ACL injury.

The 21-year-old midfielder was introduced in place of Ibrahima Diallo with 15 minutes still to go, and made an immediate impact finding himself one-on-one with keeper Kepa – but the Spaniard denied the fairytale return.

Smallbone has been out since January when he picked up the serious concern in a fixture with Leicester, which was itself his first game back from another, unrelated injury.

The Basingstoke-born Saints academy graduate has built his fitness up with two appearances for David Horseman’s B team, including 90 minutes last time out in Premier League 2 vs Wolves under-23s – the B team’s first win of the 2021-22 season.

Although he didn’t take the opportunity to win the match in regulation time and then watched on as his penalty blasted over the bar in the shootout, Smallbone put in an impressive showing and was dangerous in open-play and on set-piece duty.

Speaking to the club website and BBC Radio Solent after the match, Hasenhuttl said: “Will could be the hero today because he had a big chance when he came in.

“The most important thing is that he is back fit again, this is great for him, he should take the positive things.

“Absolutely immediately he had a good chance, immediately he was there on the six, aggressive.”

Smallbone offers an exciting option in midfield for Ralph Hasenhuttl, although he is not short of players there with Ibrahima Diallo impressing in James Ward-Prowse’s absence through suspension.

It will still be a long road to appropriate match fitness for a Premier League start anyway, but the signs on his reintroduction to the squad are more than promising.

“After this long, long, long injury the positive thing here is that he is back on the pitch and shouldn’t be too worried about the penalty today, other players missed penalties so, head up.

He added: “I want to see them positive in the next league game and concentrate on the game.”