IT is said by some that Scotland doesn’t produce physically intimidating defenders any more, but they have clearly never met Zak Jules. The 19-year-old Reading centre-half, who took his bow for Scotland’s Under-21 side's clash with Iceland on Wednesday, is a towering figure who while something of a gentle giant off the pitch, abandons that persona when on it.

This is hardly surprising when you consider his manager and mentor at club level is the legendary former Netherlands, Manchester United, Lazio, Milan and Ajax centre-back Jaap Stam, who took over at the Madejski Stadium in June and immediately took a keen interest in the development of the young Scottish hopeful.

A succinct summary of Stam's talents was once made by his manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who referred to him as “like half Stone Cold Steve Austin, half Franz Beckenbauer – the complete centre-back”.

Jules recognises that he may never reach the heights of his acclaimed mentor, or match his famed aggression, but he is going to give it everything he has as he looks to make his mark for both his club and his country.

“Having Jaap Stam as a role model is superb,” said Jules. “He doesn’t look very approachable, but surprisingly he’s a very nice guy. He’s easy to talk to and very open; if you have any questions he’s always there and his door is always open to speak to him, so he’s been superb.

“He definitely wants me to be a bit more aggressive on the park. I’m not sure if I can be as aggressive as him, but I’ll give it a go!

“He’s always giving me little bits of advice to improve my game, and he suits me as well because I like to play football and he’s come in with his philosophy of keeping the ball on the ground as much as possible. I think that’s why he took to me the first time he saw me.

“He took me on tour to Holland in pre-season with the first team, and he made it clear he wanted me to be with the first team permanently to keep a close eye on me and have a massive input into my development. He couldn’t guarantee me game-time playing every week for the first team, but he said if I ever need game-time he can put me down into the under-23s which has happened.

“I’ve managed to get on to the bench once for the first team, so it’s just about pushing on now and hopefully I can break in and get my opportunity.”

Jules was forced to adopt a nasty streak even before the arrival of Stam at Reading, as he spent a short loan-spell with Hemel Hempstead in the rough and tumble of the Vanarama National League.

“I was there for a two or three month stint, and that toughened me up a bit,” he said. “That was a war-zone! It was good though. At the time I wasn’t really getting much game-time in the under-23s and there was a lot of boys that were in front of me. I had to get out for a couple of months to get a bit of game-time, and it really helped me push on. I came back, started playing again, and this season I’ve kicked on tremendously.”

The progression of Jules through the Scotland ranks has mirrored that of his coach at national level, Scot Gemmill. Gemmill has placed faith in the likes of Jules and team-mates such as Alex Iacovitti and Ryan Hardie in taking them with him as he steps up a level, although the policy didn’t pay immediate dividends in the 2-0 loss to Iceland in which eight under-21 debutants started and three more came off the bench.

Even if they go down against Macedonia on Tuesday though, Jules believes Gemmill’s philosophy will deliver long-term success for the national side.

“It’s a new challenge,” Jules said. “At under-17 level we got to the semi-finals of the European Championships; that was brilliant and we wanted to take that on to the under-19s but unfortunately we never managed to make it.

“But having Scot take the under-21 job is superb, because we know what he’s after. He’s someone you want to work hard for, we want to do well for him because he’s such a nice guy and a brilliant coach.

“The transition will be so much easier, especially with the boys who have come up from my age group that I’ve played with before. The older boys, the more experienced boys, have been welcoming too, so it’s superb.”