A decade ago Romain Saiss was at Valence, an amateur club then in the fifth tier of the French league.
At that time he wondered if he would ever make it as a professional footballer – let alone being part of a Wolves side pursuing a place in the Champions League.
Rejected by academies and struggling for opportunities and openings, most players would have been disillusioned by the process and given up.
But there was only fierce determination from Saiss to succeed as he combined football with business studies and work in his parents’ restaurant.
Impressive in his sole season at Valence he earned that elusive professional deal with Clermont Foot and then Le Havre in 2013 where he met Riyad Mahrez.
The desire to dream even bigger was fuelled at the French Second Division outfit with the Algerian winger.
“When we were younger [at Le Havre] we were thinking about the future and I remember Riyad told me ‘I’m going to play in a big league and a big team’,” Saiss told Sport360 exclusively.
“I didn’t laugh, no. He was working a lot back then to achieve this and now I’m not surprised by him [and how well he has done].”
Ambitious, Mahrez turned his hopes into reality with moves to Leicester City and then Manchester City for £60 million where he has started to sparkle for Pep Guardiola’s side.
Watching him win the Premier League title with both clubs and play in the Champions League has shown Saiss nothing is impossible if you dare to believe.
After two years with Le Havre, the Morocco captain spent a season with Angers before Wolves signed him for £3m in 2016.
“I thought Riyad would be like this yes,” added Saiss. “Riyad is more consistent now, scores goals, makes assists and is more clinical, showing the skill. I’m really happy for him.
“We played together in the Second Division in France and now we are in the Premier League so it’s been good for us. Hopefully the future will be even better for him and me inshallah.
“I had to work hard to get here. From when I was young, I’m coming from really far to get here so I’m really happy.
“I never went to an academy when I was younger, had my first senior contract at 21 [with Clermont] which is late for many players, so it was a long trip to professional football.
“Now I arrive at 29, but I am still fresh in my mind, want to keep going, keep learning and improving.
“When I started, when younger, I liked to watch Sergio Busquets at Barcelona because he played in my position.
“A very good player, very clever, very technical, calm, the brain of Barcelona. I watched a lot of games of him.
“I hope I can do better year after year and I’m still working, trying to go as high as possible.”
The Saiss story is far from finished, though, and, having signed a deal until 2021, he would love to grace the same heights as his friend Mahrez.
Seventh-placed Wolves visit Manchester United, currently fifth, on Saturday in a crucial encounter. Both, along with Tottenham Hotspur, are just six points behind fourth-placed Chelsea.
Wolves also face Espanyol in the last 32 of the Europa League, which also offers a Champions League spot for the winners.
Saiss added: “At Wolves, our only focus is on trying to do our best in the league and see what happens in the end.
“Of course it would be special if we could reach there [the top four] because the Champions League is the best competition.
“We are also in the Europa League this season and it’s been a really good experience for us and I hope we can do great in this as well.”
Wolves have impressively established themselves among the leading Premier League sides since their promotion in 2018 – and Saiss believes they are on the cusp of something special.
He has also proved his worth, whether in the holding midfield role or part of a three-man central defence.
“It’s been good this season,” he said. “I’m playing more games this season, had good results, in a different position, but I think every player enjoys playing for this team.
“This is why I signed a new contract, to play and be part of this team and help them be successful.
“My family and I enjoy my life here and we just have to keep going game after game.
“It’s not only the team that is growing, but the club year after year in a good way. Something special is happening I hope. We just have to keep going as a team, as a club, and the future will be great.
“I hope I can represent Morocco in a good way here and play in the Premier League as long as possible.”
Saiss also believes the future is bright for his national team.
As one of the senior players, he has become a big brother to the exciting younger talent coming through, such as Achraf Hakimi, currently impressing on loan at Borussia Dortmund from Real Madrid, Schalke midfielder Amine Harit, Bordeaux’s Youssef Ait Bennasser and the Sevilla striker Youssef En-Nesyri.
It is a role he relishes and, following their appearance at the 2018 World Cup, where only an injury-time equaliser by Iago Aspas denied them a famous win over Spain, the Atlas Lions are hoping to build for the showpiece event to be held in Qatar in 2022.
Vahid Halihodzic, who helped Ivory Coast, Algeria and Japan reach World Cup finals, has been tasked with leading them and Saiss added: “It was a good experience at the World Cup. Morocco didn’t go for 20 years and it was good experience for all of us, staff and players.
“I thought we were unlucky, the games with Spain and Portugal, but the worst feeling was the first game with Iran when we lost 1-0. We killed our chance to go to the second round.
“We knew the first game was key, important to get into the second round, but we didn’t manage it. Of course we all want to go to Qatar and play in a World Cup again.
“We have a new project now, a new manager and some players are retired. But we have good young players and just have to build the team, like a family, to achieve what we want. We just have to work together to make something great for our country.
“The older players like me have to help them on the right path because they have so much talent, Achraf, Amine, Hakim Ziyech.
“They are already playing for good teams in Europe, in the Champions League, so they are learning every week, had one World Cup and learnt a lot from that.
“These guys are the future. I think they will be ready in Qatar.”