PNE defender at his peak
Preston North End captain Tom Clarke believes he is at the peak of his powers as a player.
The central defender, who turned 29 yesterday, is arguably the first name on manager Simon Grayson’s teamsheet every week.
He has been an ever present in the Championship so far this season and the only game he has missed was an EFL Cup win over Hartlepool in the first week of the season.
Clarke has become something of a cult hero at Deepdale since arriving at the club during the summer of 2013.
His winning goal against Blackpool in a League Cup tie in only his second appearance for the club endeared him to the fans straight away.
And since being awarded the captaincy, he has led the club to promotion from League One in 2015 and consolidation the following season in the Championship.
Clarke admits his decision to leave home-town club Huddersfield, where he rose up through the youth ranks, and join North End has been an inspired one.
In an eight-year stint as a pro in Yorkshire, Clarke played in just over 100 games for the Terriers, but already he has moved past the 150-appearance mark at Deepdale.
“When I first signed three-and-a-half years ago, it was something I said straight away – I want to play in as many games as I can,” Clarke said.
“I felt at Huddersfield, it was a bit stop-start for me. I was disappointed about that because I never felt like I got a good run of games.
“But every year now since I moved to Preston, it’s been 50-odd games a season and that has boded well for my fitness. Long may that continue because I’m really enjoying my time here.”
Being the skipper of the team and having played in every league game during this campaign, Clarke is in a perfect place to assess the season so far.
He admits the start to the season, when North End lost six of their opening eight league games, came as a shock to the system.
However, he has been impressed by the way his team-mates have responded to those early-season troubles.
Over the past 14 games in the Championship, they have picked up seven wins and lost only twice.
That run has moved them into the top half of the table and only six points off fifth-placed Leeds United, who they welcome to Deepdale on Boxing Day.
“Obviously, we did not start brilliantly,” said Clarke.
“It’s difficult to put your finger on the reason why.
“The Championship is a difficult league and because we didn’t start off too well, you find that there are lot of really good players, who can hurt you.
“That’s what happened in the early part of the season.
“I think we had some new players and that sometimes takes time for them to settle in.
“So it was difficult at the start, but we always knew that we were in games. There was probably only the second half at Brentford when we got battered and we were really disappointed with.
“I always felt we were just a goal away from turning it around and everything started to click.
“We are only a couple of wins from the play-offs and that’s where we want to be.”