Super Tommy set for 50th PNE appearance

Tom Clarke

Tom Clarke

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Tom Clarke is hoping to make it a half-century of starts in the Preston North End team when the Lilywhites tackle Gillingham at Deepdale tomorrow.

The defender has gone from one extreme to another in terms of appearances since leaving Huddersfield to join North End last summer.

In his final season with the Terriers he played just 15 minutes of first-team football.

At Deepdale, Clarke has been one of the first names on the team-sheet every week.

The 26-year-old has started 49 matches and made one appearance from the bench.

Bearing those figures in mind, it was worth him taking a step down in division and starting afresh at PNE.

Clarke told the Evening Post: “I was always fit and training at Huddersfield, available for selection if needed.

“I know that training is much different to playing in the matches, but I felt good in myself and fit.

“This season at Preston I have shown that I’ve been ready to play whenever needed.

“Playing a lot of games was in my sights when I decided to sign last summer.

“Thankfully I have played the majority of matches and been a big part of what we have done this season.

“There has only been the odd game which I have missed and my aim now is to play in the remaining matches and to help get us promoted.”

North End’s last two games of the regular season will be about jockeying for position within the play-offs.

They could yet finish third, fourth or fifth, and victories against Gillingham and Crewe a week tomorrow would guarantee third or fourth.

That would give them the advantage of playing the home leg second.

Clarke experienced League One play-off success at Huddersfield two years ago.

He played in both semi-final ties for the Yorkshire side against MK Dons as a substitute.

In the final at Wembley, Clarke was an unused sub, watching from the bench as Huddersfield beat Sheffield United on penalties.

Said Clarke: “The play-offs are an experience and they come down to a cup final.

“I was fortunate enough to play in them at Huddersfield and it went all the way to penalties that year.

“Hopefully it won’t go as far as that this year because it was a nerve-wracking experience.

“But winning at Wembley was a lovely feeling and it would be great if we could do it this season.”

There is of course the strong possibility of Clarke having to go head-to-head with his older brother Nathan in the play-offs.

Nathan Clarke is Leyton Orient’s skipper, and were the season to stop now, the East London side would face North End in the semi-finals.

“Playing against each other in the play-offs is something that we have talked about for a while,” said Clarke.

“There was always a chance of us being in and around, and so it has proved.

“Mum and dad aren’t too happy about it – they would have been delighted with us finishing first and second!

“It will be difficult for them if Preston play Orient, I doubt they would be able to enjoy it.

“Saying that, they would rather us both be involved in the play-offs than struggling down at the other end of the division.”

Preston’s faint hopes of automatic promotion disappeared a week ago when they were beaten by Brentford.

The 1-0 scoreline allowed the Bees to claim second place and go up behind Wolves.

Clarke said: “We started the season wanting to be in and around the top teams.

“We have done that but unfortunately we weren’t able to get the extra few wins we needed to make the top two.

“Wolves and Brentford are good teams with good squads, and well done to them for getting automatic.

“The next best thing is the play-offs and that is something which have cemented in recent weeks.

“When you look at our games against Wolves and Brentford, we didn’t win any of them.

“But hopefully we can follow them up to the Championship next month.”

Clarke will be hoping to shrug off a slight calf strain in order to play tomorrow.

The injury saw him substituted at half-time of Easter Monday’s 5-2 victory over Shrewsbury.

“I should be alright, it was just a bit of a calf strain,” said Clarke.

“The medical staff decided it was not worth the risk of playing any longer against Shrewsbury.

“At this stage of the season it is no point being silly with injuries.

“This is a big game for us because we want to finish the season strongly and get the home leg of the play-offs second.

“Gillingham are probably safe now but they will want to come up here and make it difficult for us.

“They gave us a tough game down at their ground earlier in the season. One of their players who everyone talks about is Adebayo Akinfenwa, there’s two of him! He brings power and strength to them.”