MANAGER Russell Martin admitted he has to "manage his own temptation" to reintroduce Jack Stephens to the squad before he is ready.

Stephens returned to Southampton training last week after a 12-week layout following an injury he picked up against QPR.

The centre-back still remains some way off being ready for regular football and is continuing to build his fitness in training.

Asked by the Daily Echo how far the Saints captain is from returning to first-team action, Martin outlined the importance his return will have on the squad.

He said: “If it was down to Jack he would have played on Saturday and he would be playing tomorrow night.

"He is so desperate to be involved and to help the team, I love that about him. I don’t think it can be understated how big of a miss he has been.

"We have been lucky to have three players in Mason (Holgate), Taylor (Harwood-Bellis) and Janny (Bednarek) who have done brilliantly.

“Janny and Taylor have built up a relationship over a period of time now. Jack has been a huge loss, we wouldn’t have lost three games in a row if he was playing.

“Albeit, I think that period will be good for us in the long term, to come through all of that together."

Martin noted that Stephens' return to the grass has meant that noise levels within the group have increased and training intensity has stepped up.

"Even in the week he has been back training I've been impressed by the detail he has in possession, the way he helps teammates.

"If you don’t fully understand what he does, you would if you played with him. You would even notice some of the non-verbal stuff he does on the ball with his body language."

Despite Martin's glowing review, Stephens will still have to battle for a starting spot with the previously mentioned Harwood-Bellis and Bednarek.

The duo have started eight of the 13 games Stephens has missed through injury, however, Martin pointed out that the 29 year old is ready for the challenge.

“He is a top, top football player. I knew he was good, but he is better than I thought he was. I’ve missed him, as you can probably tell, and I think the team have missed him.

Daily Echo:

“For me, it’s about managing my own temptation to bring him in too quickly and his desperation to bring him back in quickly. We need to listen to the sports science and medical teams. 

“It’s a collaboration, everyone is together. We all want the same thing, which is for Jack to be on the pitch helping us. We just need to be a little bit more patient.

“Hopefully this time next week I’ll be giving you a different answer and he will be pushing to get himself into the squad.

"I think he knows there is a challenge to do that, but knowing Jack and the character he is, he will back himself to do that and stay there when he gets into the team.”