Neil Clement is a Baggy with bags of experience. West Bromwich Albion are the versatile defender's fifth employers since he turned professional. In fact, if you include his appearances for the Aston Villa youth side 10 years ago, he is actually on his sixth club. No big deal, you might think, except that Clement is still only 23. "I've been around a bit," he quips.
Clement is widely regarded as one of the most promising full-backs in English football. So much so that John Gregory was rumoured to be lining up a summer transfer for the youngster before he unexpectedly left the Villa Park hot-seat 10 days ago.
But Clement might just as easily have become another forgotten Chelsea reject. The former Lilleshall School of Excellence graduate played just one game for the Blues in the Premiership, against West Ham back in 1996, before being overlooked in favour of the big-name foreign stars at Stamford Bridge. "The trouble at Chelsea," says Clement, who was often Gianluca Vialli's room-mate before the Italian replaced Ruud Gullit as manager, "was that the reserves were full of first-teamers who didn't want to be there, injured players on their way back and youngsters trying hard to get away. There were so few opportunities for a young Englishman like me."
Loan spells at his home-town club of Reading as well as with Preston and Brentford gave him brief senior experience, but his career looked to be going to waste. Cue a desperate Gary Megson who, having just been handed the seemingly impossible task of saving West Brom from relegation at the end of the 1999-2000 season, managed to sign Clement and four other players on loan just before the transfer deadline.
The defender turned out to be instrumental in helping achieve First Division survival, never more so than when he was involved in one of the goals that kept Albion up after their last-day defeat of Charlton. The deal was soon made permanent and Clement has since seen the club reach the play-offs last season as well as the dizzy heights of third place this time around. "I must admit I sometimes find it hard to believe quite how well we've done," says the club's free-kick specialist, whose technique is based on that of his Chelsea mentor, Gianfranco Zola.
The transformation does not end there, as the Baggies have also defeated Sunderland and Leicester to reach the fifth round of the FA Cup. They will be favourites to make it to the last eight, as they entertain Third Division Cheltenham at the Hawthorns a week next Saturday.
"It's been an amazing turn- around," says Clement, who scored the winning penalty in the last round just days after the club legend, Jeff Astle, had died. "Albion are a really big club and I'm just pleased I've taken the chance they gave me two years ago. All I want now is to play in the Premiership. And I feel ready. If I was at Chelsea now, having got this year under my belt at West Brom, I would be confident about getting in their team. I feel I have the ability to play at that level. I see players already up there who haven't got any more talent than me. I don't feel I've got anything to be scared of."
Clement is unabashed about his burning desire to succeed. He says he draws much of his strength of character from his father, Dave, who passed away 20 years ago. Clement Snr, who made more than 500 appearances for Queen's Park Rangers and was capped five times by England, tragically took his own life after breaking his leg in the twilight of an excellent career. Neil was barely three when his father, an attacking full-back who also played for Bolton, Fulham and Wimbledon, was found dead.
"I suppose I've had to try to get to know dad through talking to people and watching tapes of him play," Clement says. "Everyone I've spoken to talks not of how he died, but of what a nice man he was and what a fine player he was. The BBC commentator John Motson gave me five video tapes of him a few years back, and I can see what they mean."
Following Wolverhampton Wanderers' comeback against Rotherham yesterday, West Brom are four points behind their deadly, second-placed rivals as they travel to Burnley today. "We have to keep our minds firmly on the League," Clement says. "Having won three on the trot, we are full of confidence, and I'm sure we can push on and gain one of the automatic Premiership places. That would be fantastic."
The success of Clement Jnr has been most bitter-sweet for his mother. "It has been difficult for my mum at times," he says. "When I got to 15 I think she started having flashbacks to the time when she was going out with dad as a footballer. I even said that she didn't have to watch me if she didn't want to. When I was at Reading she would get upset whenever she saw me play in their blue-and-white hooped shirts because they reminded her of dad's QPR days. She would be crying in the bar afterwards and I found that hard.
"The one positive is that it has brought the family closer together and made us stronger. I'm proud of what dad achieved from what I've seen. Everyone tells me that if I'm half the player he was I'll have a great career." By all accounts, Clement Jnr is already halfway there.