DEAN Hammond believes the intense level of competition at the club has spurred Saints’ central midfielders onto new heights.

Manager Nigel Adkins has a wealth of options to choose from in the middle of the park, with four legitimate starters in that area.

Along with on-field skipper Hammond, there is French ace Morgan Schneiderlin, Richard Chaplow and summer signing Jack Cork.

Former Chelsea player Cork has so far proved to be an outstanding addition to the squad, turning in a string of exceptional displays in the early stages of the season.

Hammond has started every league game alongside him, forging an impressive-looking central midfield partnership.

And the 28-year-old has admitted that the competitiveness in his position has forced him to raise his own game.

“Of course, you know there’s going to be competition for places, obviously stepping up a division,” said Hammond.

“You have to try and be at your best every day in training.

“The manager’s watching all the time and monitors what you do.

“You have to prepare yourself for the competition and play your best, because you know if you don’t do that then someone else will have your shirt.”

Hammond revealed how much he has enjoyed partnering Cork in midfield, praising the 22-year-old, who is in his second spell at Saints, following a loan move in the 2008/09 season.

But Hammond admits he is well aware that there are others breathing down his neck for one of the starting roles.

“It’s been good,” he said. “Obviously, Corky’s a fantastic player.

“He’s been playing in the Championship a long time, and he’s come from a club like Chelsea.

“Obviously, we’ve got stiff competition from Morgan, whose come in a few times and played very well, and Chaps is a good player too.

“So you know you have to be on your toes and playing well.”

With four wins from their opening five Championship matches – putting them second in the table – Hammond is more than satisfied with how Saints have started the season.

But he has promised the players will not get carried away, insisting that they will retain the focus that has helped them get off to such a flier.

“We were confident going into the season that we could do well at this level,” said the captain.

“We started well, but obviously it’s only a start.

“We’re playing some nice football, we look solid, apart from maybe the first 20 minutes against Leicester.

“It’s enjoyable, but like we have done last season and will do this season we take one game at a time.”