WHEN Jake Buxton walks out at Wembley tomorrow, he will take another step in his remarkable footballing journey.
The former Burton Albion defender – who started out spray-painting cars to earn some cash – is now 90 minutes away from the Premier League.
Buxton, now 29, recalls: “When I started at Mansfield, they had given all the YTS (contracts) out, so I had to go on the sponsorship, which didn’t allow me to get paid.
“I ended up working for Churchill Insurance, spray painting cars in Castle Donington and in Barnsley.
“I was sorting out wing mirrors and scuffs, that kind of thing.
“So I’ve come a long way from that!”
After cutting his teeth in the Football League with Mansfield, Buxton dropped down to non-league to join Burton.
Having helped the Brewers win promotion, the man who signed him – Nigel Clough – took him to new club Derby County.
When Clough was sacked earlier this season, many felt it could signal the end of Buxton’s time with the Rams.
Indeed, new boss Steve McClaren left him out of his first match in charge.
However, an injury to the on-loan Zak Whitbread in the next game gave the centre-back another chance – one he has grasped with both hands.
Buxton’s form kept Whitbread and another loanee, Michael Keane, out of the side – and earned him two player of the year awards.
“I think my performances have improved over the course of the season,” he said.
“The confidence the manager has given me by sticking by me – and also giving me the captaincy for the Chelsea (FA Cup) game – has helped me rise to the occasion.
“I wanted to stay at this football club – that was the drive for me after Nigel Clough left.
“I could probably have easily thrown the towel in and gone up to Sheffield United with him.
“But this is a great club and they’ve been phenomenal with me.
“I’ve got a bond with the supporters now and I want to keep that.
“So I wanted to stay in Steve McClaren’s side and perform to the highest standard possible.”
Buxton has been spurred on by the will to succeed – and the competition around him.
“I think this has been a long time coming,” he said.
“The hard work has been done years in advance – shipping people out and bringing new faces in.
“The people brought in by Steve McClaren have added quality to the team and I think that has helped improve me as a player.
“Even though I’ve got self pride to want to stay in the side, the competition for places has helped me.
“Having Michael Keane, Zak Whitbread and Mark O’Brien chomping at the bit every week means there can be no letting up.
“That has driven me on as a person and as a player.”
Buxton also credits the birth of his son, Beau – who will be a year old next month – as a contributing factor to his rise.
“Having a little boy about 11 months ago has changed my outlook on life,” he said.
“That has pushed me on and moved me a little bit further on in life.
“I think I used to maybe analyse my game a bit too much.
“But now I’ve got other things to think about and it’s probably given me a bit of breathing space – now I’ve got the drive to do well for him and his life.”
If Derby can reach the promised land, what will be next for Buxton?
“If we go up, then I imagine we’ll sit down in the summer and see where we go from there,” he said.
“I’d like to think if we do go up, the manager would keep me around.
“If he doesn’t, we’ve still come a long way.”