SAM CLUCAS’S journey to become the jewel in Mansfield’s crown and grab four goals in the FA Cup first round has taken him via Spain, the Central Midlands League and a Debenhams’ cafe.
The 23-year-old banged in a quadruple, and a first professional hat-trick, in the Stags’ 8-1 win at non-league St Albans City last weekend.
But the 6ft 2ins winger hasn’t only grown physically since he was released by Leicester City aged 16 for being too small.
With nine goals already for Mansfield following his summer move from Hereford, Clucas’ stock has risen too.
Nottingham Forest have reportedly watched admiringly – not bad considering it wasn’t all that long ago he was studying Sports Development, Coaching & Fitness at Lincoln College and playing for Nettleham in English football’s 11th tier.
“It was miles down!” Clucas said. “But for me it was more important to get an education and go to college because I’d been rejected from Leicester and everywhere I went on trial I kept being told I was too small.
“I was 5ft 6ins or something like that – dead tiny – but six months after I got released I had a growth spurt.
“It’s a blow to be told you’ve got the ability but you’re too small. It’s not like they’re saying your right foot isn’t good enough and you can go away and work on it. They just said height, so what can I work on? It’s frustrating.
“I was going to go on a football scholarship in America. The guy came over from Chicago to watch a game, spoke to my mum and dad and offered a deal.
“But one of the tutors at college, John Priestly, had connections at Lincoln City and got me a trial there. They offered me a year pro.”
Lincoln lost, Jackson was sacked and Clucas never played again under new boss Chris Sutton.
“Chris Fagan was there at the time and he was the first player out of the Glenn Hoddle Academy to get a pro club,” Clucas said. “The academy was mainly for released Premier League and Championship players but I asked if he could put a word in for me to get a trial. I went down to Bisham Abbey for two days and Glenn Hoddle offered me a deal.”
Hoddle’s academy had a tie-up with Jerez Industrial, giving players game time in the Spanish fourth division.
“I was used to being away and I wanted to be a footballer so bad I was happy to make the sacrifices to go out there,” Clucas said. “Training with top names like Glenn Hoddle, Graham Rix and Dave Beasant, who have all done it at the highest level, you think: ‘If I don’t make it out here, I’m not going to make it at all’.
“I loved it. It was a great experience. The football really suited my style of play, playing out of the back and getting on the ball. There were a lot of players there who are now playing at very good clubs back here.”
Back at home, Clucas trained with Barnet before being signed by Hereford and learning the pressures of playing for a team fighting for its life in League Two.
“Just going out and playing in front of fans was a big deal,” Clucas said. “My first game was against Yeovil in the FA Cup and the manager at the time, Jamie Pitman, brought me off at half-time.
“I was getting tweets from some Hereford fans saying I was the worst player to ever play for them and that I should leave the club. Eighteen months later I got player of the season and fans’ player and I was getting tweets saying: ‘Don’t leave’. It is funny how things change.
“The manager, Martin Foyle, trusted me and he gave me a lot of confidence. When he came in he changed it about and we had a lot of young lads. He really got the best out of us.”
Newly-promoted Mansfield and boss Paul Cox came calling in the summer to give the England C international a third crack at League football.
“You’ve got to keep positive and believe in yourself,” he said. “But not only did I want to do it for myself, I wanted to do it for my mum and dad and my family.
“It was an hour-and-a-quarter there, an hour-and-a-quarter back. He was finishing work early just to take me. He wasn’t getting anything out of it. He just went, dropped me off for training and then took me back.
“So he sacrificed a lot in his life and so did the rest of my family. I’ve got two brothers – Ben and Jordan – so he missed out on watching them play football as well.
“We’d be getting home at 10.30pm two days a week and obviously he’d been at work all day so he wouldn’t really see my mum. So not only did I make sacrifices but they all did as well.”
Now he is an important cog in Mansfield’s machine, those part-time Saturday shifts in Debenham’s must seem a long time ago.
“Especially when I was getting up at 7am and emptying bins!” Clucas said “It definitely makes you appreciate it more when you’ve got it. But I’ve always believed in myself.”