Play-off heartache gives Hull City’s Sam Clucas inspiration

Hull City winger Sam Clucas, right, experienced defeat with Chesterfield in last seasons League One play-offs.
Hull City winger Sam Clucas, right, experienced defeat with Chesterfield in last seasons League One play-offs.
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A YEAR may have passed, but Sam Clucas has not forgotten that gut-wrenching sense of emptiness and despair.

Sitting in the away dressing room at Deepdale as the party to celebrate Preston North End reaching Wembley got under way outside, Chesterfield’s players were distraught.

After a wonderful season that had seen the Spireites confound the bookmakers to finish sixth in League One, the dream of taking the Derbyshire club back to the second tier after a 64-year absence was over.

As Clucas prepares for Hull City’s Championship semi-final double-header against Derby County, he admits that hollow feeling of May 10 last year is not one he wants to experience again.

“Losing at Preston was awful,” said the 25-year-old, who had finished the 2014-15 season as Chesterfield’s second-highest scorer with 12 goals from midfield.

“The second leg was at their place and Preston played well. How well they have done this season in the Championship shows what a good side they had in League One.

“But we had gone into that second leg full of confidence. We really felt we could go there and get to the final. If we had taken our chances, we would be in the Championship now.

“Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be, and, instead, it was all their fans running on the pitch and singing at the end of the game. All the Preston players were getting lifted up and it must have been brilliant for them.

“For us, though, it was the other side of life. The dressing room was eerily quiet after we had gone out. Everyone was sitting there, head in hands, just knowing what a massive opportunity had passed us by. Massive, massive disappointment.

“That stayed with everyone all summer. Something like that really can spoil the summer. The play-offs are exciting to be involved in. But if you don’t get to the final, it is so disappointing.”

Clucas left Chesterfield a couple of months later, destined for the KC Stadium in a £1.3m transfer. Having scored on his debut as Huddersfield Town were beaten 2-0 on the opening day, the winger quickly became an integral part of the Hull team.

He has featured in all but two of Hull’s 46 league games and has provided eight assists, a tally only beaten by Ahmed Elmohamady following the Egyptian helping create three of the five goals scored by Steve Bruce’s men in Saturday’s hammering of Rotherham United.

Despite that, Clucas may have to be content with a place on the bench this weekend against Derby after Bruce dropped heavy hints in the wake of that win over the Millers that the starting XI would remain the same.

Either way, Clucas is desperate to do his bit in the quest to take the Tigers back to the Premier League.

“The other side of what Chesterfield went through (last year) is those who have won promotion in the play-off final,” said the Lincoln-born player.

“I have spoken to a few players who have won automatic promotion and via the play-offs. They all say the play-offs is the best way and how there is nothing like winning at Wembley. Hopefully, I can get a feel of that this year.

“I have never played at Wembley and it would be great to win promotion there. A massive achievement for the club, who I feel deserves to be in the Premier League. That is where we all want to be.”

Hull go into the play-offs as marginal favourites with the bookmakers.

That could be down to the big game experience in the Hull squad that allowed Bruce to field no less than nine full internationals in his starting XI on the final day.

Or it could be because the Tigers’ relative consistency meant they spent all but five days of the entire season in the top six, a record that eclipses Brighton (seven), Derby (75) and Wednesday (162).

What is certain is that, first, the Rams and then the winners of the other semi-final will be determined to prove the bookies wrong.

Hull, though, are keen to live up to that billing at the Ipro on Saturday lunchtime.

So, too, Clucas, as he looks to bury the memories of last year’s play-off disappointment with Chesterfield.

“We weren’t expected to go up at Chesterfield last season or get in the play-offs,” he added. “But we did manage to get in the top six.

“We qualified and the excitement was huge. The players were buzzing, so were the fans and the games were on TV.

“You know you are three games away from getting into the league above. That causes great excitement. Unfortunately, we lost –and that is the other side of it. We had worked so hard all season to get there and then, suddenly, it was over.

“It is probably one of the days I will never forget in my football career. But now we have a chance of the play-offs and I want to see the other side, which means promotion.”