Captain Clarke’s great expectations

Clarke scores the winner at Burton

Clarke scores the winner at Burton

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As the January transfer window swung from one extreme to another Preston North End watched on.

No big money may have been spent but there was certainly some on offer.

Admiring glances towards Deepdale’s emerging talents were spurned, a squad built on graft and team spirit, with an increasing amount of quality thrown in, catching the eye more than ever.

Interest was knocked back, Jordan Hugill the subject of two bids from Ipswich, with captain Tom Clarke now relishing leading a group that surely can only get better.

The skipper believes Simon Grayson’s men have got more than enough to gatecrash the play-off party despite not getting involved in the deadline-day frenzy.

“The money that’s flying around is unbelievable,” said the 29-year-old, who will lead the side at Barnsley on Saturday.

“In the Championship the figures that are being thrown around are massive.

“There are big teams with big money in this league and it’s good to be playing against better players week in, week out.

“But the staff here have got good players in when needed.

“Every player they’ve brought in seems to add to the group and bring competition for places and you don’t need to be spending millions.

“We’ve done well to get where we are and we need to build on that.”

Keeping hold of players such as Hugill and Callum Robinson means PNE are building a real platform to improve on last season’s 11th-placed finish in the second tier.

The former has nine goals to his name and is North End’s top scorer while the latter has seven, combining menacing wing play with an eye for goal.

“When we were in League One we were always building to be in the Championship,” said Clarke, who captained North End to play-off glory in 2015.

“Preston’s a massive club and it’s an easy draw for players to come here.

“It was always hoped that those that came in could bed-in in the Championship.

“They’ve done that and the likes of Jordan and Callum are thriving.

“They’ve got good experience, a lot of games at a really young age.

“Jordan’s only 24, Callum’s 22, and they’ll only get better and it’s exciting times.”

This group of ever-developing players is also arguably playing some of the best football seen at Deepdale for some time, Robinson, Aiden McGeady and most recently Daryl Horgan having the ability to wow crowds and win games on their own.

“We’ve got players who can do something out of nothing which is what we needed,” said Clarke.

“Aiden, Callum and Daryl can win you a game with one bit of skill or movement.

“It’s something that we’ve missed and I’m glad we’ve got them in the team.

“They can push us that little bit further on, which is where we want to be.”

This weekend will be a test of how far this improving side can go.

You could argue that like PNE, Barnsley are unlikely play-off contenders.

Three points and three places above North End in eighth, Paul Heckingbottom’s side sent out a warning of their intentions with a 2-1 win at Deepdale back on September 10.

There is no sign of them slowing down, with Clarke knowing there is a big three points on offer this weekend and both sides look to hurt the other’s 
aspirations.

“It’s a massive game,” he said.

“Both teams are doing well and Barnsley are doing unbelievably well in their first season back in the Championship.

“They’ve come in as a bit of an unknown.

“We’re in our second season and need to continue the good work we’ve done and be putting pressure on the teams above to get closer to the play-offs.”

Preston will need to improve on Tuesday night’s showing at Cardiff if they are to have a successful trip to South Yorkshire, a slow start seeing Grayson’s side slip to a 2-0 defeat.

It was the third poor opening half in a row from the Lilywhites, having fallen behind against Aston Villa and Ipswich before picking up points.

It proved a bridge too far at the Cardiff City Stadium with PNE looking to end a worrying trend at Oakwell this weekend.

“Off the ball we need to be closing down and on the ball we’ve got to be quicker, with a lot more tempo,” said Clarke.

“We didn’t do any of that at Cardiff.

“We didn’t play too many forward passes and play in their half enough, which is disappointing.

“In previous games before this little run we’ve started well.

“It’s hard to put your finger on why it’s changed.

“You look at the Arsenal game and the ones after that and we’ve got in people’s faces and played a lot quicker on the ball.

“It’s disappointing but we know we can do it and it’s good that we’ve got a game on Saturday to bounce back.”

Clarke could again line up alongside new boy Tyias Browning, the Everton youngster making his debut in South Wales a day after arriving on loan.

“He’s settled in really well,” said the skipper.

“As soon as he got here I managed to speak to him before the game and tell him what we’re about and how we play.

“He fitted in straight away. He played well, defended well and got up and supported play when possible.

“He’s been in a couple of days and got straight in.

“It’s good to have him on board and hopefully he’ll kick on even stronger.

“We’re a good group. People tend to settle in well and whoever comes in does a good job.

Browning may be a new face at Deepdale but Clarke is the opposite, the Wembley-winning 
captain set to make his 150th league appearance for the club on Saturday.

“I’m loving my time here, I just want to stay fit and play as much as I can,” he said.

“I want to keep contributing to the team 
doing well.

“Since I’ve been here we’ve progressed every season and we want to that again. Last season was good, to finish 11th, but we want to better that and build on it and I think we’ve got the team to do it.”