By Tony Leighton
Six years ago a demoralised Jake Buxton was spray-painting cars to make money in the close-season and wondering if he had a future in football.
Now the central defender, released by Mansfield Town following their 2008 relegation from The Football League, is on the brink of becoming a Premier League player with Derby County as he prepares to face Queens Park Rangers in Saturday's Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Final at Wembley.
Victory in the so-called £100million match would complete a fairy tale rise that the now 29-year-old Buxton admits was beyond his wildest dreams when he was at his lowest ebb in that at times desperate summer of not so long ago.
Did he believe, in the aftermath of his release from Mansfield, that he would ever approach such heights?
"No, not really," he said. "Six months before my career was on a high, but then I was let go by Mansfield.
"I'd gone from being a young captain, a talented young player looking to play higher up the divisions, to being left without a club.
"That summer, as you do, you wait for the phone to ring and you get to the end of June and players are starting pre-season and I didn't have a club.
"I was spray painting cars for an insurance company, I did a bit of building work, labouring. I had a mortgage and bills to pay like any normal person."
Fortunately for Buxton he did finally receive a phone call, though rather than being from higher up the divisions it came from the then non-league Burton Albion manager Nigel Clough. But that proved the turning point of his career.
"It was either get a job or take the opportunity of playing at Burton part-time," said the defender. "We said as a family, my mum and dad and my missus Danielle, that we'd give it a year and see where it goes from there.
"If not I'd have tried to get a trade, but this was my best shot at getting back into football and I was grateful to Nigel for giving me that call."
Buxton repaid Clough handsomely - he was Burton's Player of the Year as they clinched promotion to The Football League in his only season at the club.
Clough left Burton for Derby a couple of months before the end of that 2008/09 campaign, and during the close season that followed Buxton re-joined his manager and so leapt not one but three divisions to land in the Championship.
Five years on - and eight months after Clough was sacked and replaced in the Rams hot seat by Steve McClaren - the Premier League beckons.
Buxton said: "Signing for Derby was a ticket to try and further my career higher up the divisions, and I've been very lucky that the additions here over the past five years have improved us a squad.
"Nigel was obviously hurt with the timing of his sacking, but that's football and he's been in touch to wish the lads all the best for Wembley.
"Things move on and the group that was here before Steve McClaren brought a few additions in were all Nigel's players.
"So the drive for the players was to prove to the ex-England manager [McClaren] that we were good enough to play for him. He's set us targets since he's been here, and now he's set us the target of winning at Wembley."
Derby will face a QPR team filled with star names, unlike the Rams themselves. But that will not deter Buxton and his team-mates. "They've got the name players and the experience of playing in the division above," he noted.
"We've got youth, energy, legs. If they want to stand toe to toe with us and if we - after preparing as well as we possibly can - perform as we have done over 48 games this season, then there will only be one outcome."
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