TO SAY that Sam Clucas has arrived in the Premier League via an unconventional route is putting it mildly.
Rejected by Leicester City at 16 and then by hometown club Lincoln City just two years later, the Hull City midfielder found redemption at Glenn Hoddle’s football academy in southern Spain before recommencing his Football League journey which has now seen him rise to the top with the Tigers.
It is an uplifting footballing story which is good for the soul. But sadly, it represents a bit of a rarity these days, with the number of players who rise from lower-league obscurity to the top-flight being far, far fewer than it once was.
Given what Clucas has experienced, no-one should really be surprised that he has stayed humble and close to his roots, even accounting for his rise to the Premier League.
He still lives in Lincoln, his place of birth and is about as far removed from a ‘Billy Big Time’ figure as it gets.
That said, his pride at appearing in the biggest domestic league in the world is manifest, even if he does not shout it from the rooftops, which is plainly not his style. His impressive performances as a holding midfielder in the Tigers’ first four games of the Premier League season have also certainly not gone unnoticed further afield.
But, true to form, he remains grounded and self-effacing when it comes to the subject of receiving acclaim from pundits and others in the game.
You suspect, though, that he is maybe, just maybe thrilled to bits – secretly at least anyway. And so he should be.
Clucas quipped: “I am watching Match of the Day and my ginger head pops up on it...
“But I do not listen to the pundits, really. It is only early in the season and I do not want to read all the praise.
“You cannot miss it now, with social media. I have friends texting me and ringing me – ‘you should hear what Thierry Henry has just said’. I do not want to know, I just put the phone down!
“You cannot really miss it. (But) it is great to be getting the plaudits and, hopefully, they will keep coming throughout the season.
“I do not want it to affect me. One game at a time. I want to concentrate on the next game, not thinking ‘oh yeah, everyone said I played well last week’.”
After the knockbacks received earlier in his career, it is understandable that Clucas, who only joined Hull from Chesterfield in the summer of 2015, is slightly circumspect when it comes to the subject of praise.
But, equally, he has fully-earned his chance on the big stage.
If the 25-year-old needed a reminder of just how far he has travelled in a footballing sense, it came during Hull’s last home game with Manchester United, the club he supports, just a fortnight ago.
Despite lining up against the side who he has roared on from the stands numerous times – as recently as last year in fact – Clucas soon showed that he was not cowed by the experience. Just as you suspect he will not be this afternoon against another well-heeled Premier League outfit.
In many ways, locking horns with the team he supports represented the point when playing in the top-flight really did become reality, in the nicest possible sense.
Clucas said: “It is the best league to play in in the world, with the excitement behind all the games.
“I remember doing press conferences last year, and there were three people sitting in here and now it is double figures.
“I think it all only really sank in when we played Manchester United because I am a massive Man United fan.
“I went to watch them loads of times last year and, suddenly, I am standing in the tunnel next to the players I have been watching on TV and supporting. I had to change my mindset to trying to beat them instead of cheering them on.”
Clucas’s opposite number against United was £89m man Paul Pogba and another expensive summer signing – if not quite that expensive – in the shape of £30m capture Granit Xhaka could well be jousting with him for supremacy in the midfield battleground today.
For Clucas, it is purely one individual against another, with reputation counting for little in his mind. Do not expect him to be starstruck, just as he wasn’t when he lined up against Pogba and gave as good as he got.
On facing Pogba, he added: “It is just another human being who does the same job as you. The difference is, he is probably worth about £89m more than me.
“It is 11 v 11 at the end of the day and, if you watch the game back, no one looked out of place on that pitch. We certainly gave them a good game.”
After featuring mainly in a left-sided role last term, Clucas has slotted in seamlessly when pressed into service in a holding role in the heart of midfield this season.
He is the first to admit that he has had to tailor his attacking instincts a little for the sake of the team, with some tutelage from caretaker-boss Mike Phelan – no mean defensive midfielder himself in a career which saw him represent the likes of United, Norwich City and Burnley – helping along the way.
On the influence of Phelan, Clucas said: “He has been brilliant. At the start in pre-season, because I have got loads of energy, I was running about all over the pitch and he had to rein me in a bit to play that central defensive midfield role.
“Last year, I was covering the most distance in the team, but this year I have had to cut back a bit. It has been a different role and I am enjoying it. You seem to get more touches of the ball when you are playing central midfield, which obviously I like doing.”