Sky Blues spell has reignited the passion for young Jack Stephens as he reveals how the senior pro's at City have helped him develop...
Jack Stephens has gone the distance since arriving at the Sky Blues Lodge in January, after a loan switch from Premier League Southampton.
The 22-year old’s 14 appearances have added some consistency to a backline that has been plagued by injury throughout the season, with no fewer than eight long-term injuries to City defenders.
Stephens arrived at the Sky Blues with fellow Premier League counterpart Baily Cargill, but their fledgling partnership was cut short when Cargill suffered an ankle injury against Rochdale. The South-coast pairing looked to be a perfect fit in the City backline, with both comfortable on the ball and confident distributing passes from the back.
Since then, Stephens has struck up a good relationship with Aaron Martin whose return to fitness was a welcome addition for Tony Mowbray. Having been thrown straight in to the fold at Port Vale, Stephens has since appeared in every League One fixture dating back to January and taken on the role with professionalism beyond his youthful 22-years.
“I’ve really enjoyed my time here, it’s nice to be able to get a good run of games,” Jack said. “I have enjoyed the challenge of try to mount a play-off push, in the end it hasn’t quite happened for us.
“I wanted to come here and play as many games as possible. I didn’t expect to play every game, but we’ve had some injuries at the back and I’ve been used in a couple of different positions so it’s good for me to get minutes under my belt. It’s all valuable experience.
“I went straight in to the game at Port Vale, I was just happy to play. Since then I’ve played across the backline, that’s where you learn the most. The experience comes when you play a variety of positions at a young age.”
Stephens will be the first to admit that he needs more competitive experience before making the leap in to the Premier League game. Certainly, there is no better development tool than experience alongside players with international ilk and City’s senior pro’s have been invaluable to the Southampton loanee’s development.
“I knew Sam [Ricketts] from the backend of last year at Swindon Town, I get on really well with him,” Jack said. “All the older players have great advice and so much experience to pass on to the youngsters. Since I walked through the door, every player has been spot on.
“Joe Cole, Sam Ricketts, Stephen Hunt - They have over 150 international caps between them. You’ve got to soak up that experience and the feedback they can give. Ask questions and you will learn, all of the senior players have been top pro’s and I am grateful for it.”
Current centre-back pairing at Southampton, Jose Fonte and Virgil Van Dijk have an average age of 28 and with Stephens just 22, he has plenty of time to add experience to his development. In fact, many of the top flight’s centre-backs are in their 30s, including the Premier League’s table topping centre-back pairing of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth.
Something that Stephens has been working on during his spell at City is adding aggression to his game, with the youngster revealing his natural ambition to win.
“I like to think that I am a winner, if there is one thing I hate it’s losing,” Jack said. “I definitely put everything in to every game, that competitive edge is what you can see on the pitch. Sometimes it’s a good thing to get fired up, it shows you care about the club and winning games.
“I’ve been told I need to be more aggressive, bring a certain forcefulness to my game. Obviously you have to demonstrate that in the right way, it’s channelled aggression. Since I have come in here the Gaffer has been on at me about that, it’s made me a better player.
“There aren’t many 22-year olds playing central defence in the Premier League, but I’d like to say I can convince the manager. If I get the opportunity, all I can do is my best.”
Stephens spent the first-half of the season on loan to Championship side Middlesbrough, but soon became frustrated by the lack of first team opportunities. The centre-half has made a full complement of appearances since joining the Sky Blues in January and has been able to enjoy a consistent run in Mowbray’s side.
Jack reveals how Coventry has put the spark back in his game: “The main thing for me is that I want to be playing competitive football regularly. When I went to Middlesborough at the start of this season I gave it everything and for one reason or another it didn’t work out.
“I wasn’t happy because I wasn’t playing football. It wasn’t until I came to Coventry that I started getting the love for football back - I had lost a bit of interest and it was getting me down. Since I have come in here, I’ve loved every minute of it and I’ve re-found that spark.”
Ironically, Stephens made his first professional appearance in a Saints shirt at the Ricoh Arena in an FA Cup encounter against Coventry City. His parent club ran out 2-1 winners that day, but it wasn’t to be long before Stephens was to step out of the home dressing room at the Ricoh Arena – this time, in a Sky Blue shirt.
“It’s funny how football works, the Ricoh Arena was my first Saints experience as a senior professional footballer. My only appearance for Southampton was against Coventry and it was strange to go back to the place where I made my Saints debut. But I’ve enjoyed every minute of it here and I’ll never forget how important it has been to my development.
“We want to finish strongly, starting with a win on Saturday. It’s important we give the fans a good send off at the Ricoh, they’ve been brilliant since I have been here.”
Stephens is set to rejoin his South-coast home over the summer and is hoping to affect the mindset of manager Ronald Koeman in the preseason period. Having played in every position across the back four, as well as defensive midfield, Stephens versatility may prove invaluable to forcing his way in to the thoughts of Southampton’s Dutchman.
“I’d like to think I am going to be given the opportunity in preseason to affect the manager’s thinking. I want to show what I can do, then it’s up to me to convince the coaching staff that I am ready to be trusted in that position.
“I quite enjoy the challenge of playing in different positions. I’m probably getting to the stage in my career where I need to nail down a consistent position; somewhere I can perform and affect the game in a positive way.
“I’ve have a couple of chats with the manager [Ronald Koeman]. At this stage in my career, he’s said it’s important I am playing games and that’s why I came here. Game time in a successful team. I can go back to Southampton with a bit of momentum and attack preseason.
For the time being though, Stephens has two games left in a Coventry City shirt and intends to give the crowd a good send off during Saturday’s clash with Sheffield United at the Ricoh Arena.
“We want to perform well, give the crowd something to cheer about. There is a lot of pride and passion around this football club and the players want to give a positive performance in our final home game.”