PNE skipper Tom ready for Reds

Tom Clarke will captain Preston against Manchester United
Tom Clarke will captain Preston against Manchester United
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Preston North End skipper Tom Clarke has already proved himself as a player for the big occasion and hopes to do so again in Preston’s FA Cup clash with Manchester United.

In only his second game for PNE, the centre-back scored their late winner against local rivals Blackpool in the Capital One Cup.

Eighteen months on from that glorious Monday night, the stage is an even bigger one for United’s fifth-round visit to Deepdale.

“I haven’t dreamt about scoring the winner but it would be lovely wouldn’t it?” said Clarke.

“Beating Blackpool was a great night and now I’m looking forward to this one against Manchester United.

“This is a big game for us as players and a big game for the club and supporters.

“We have had two good wins in the league in the last few days and it is nice that we are now able to concentrate on the FA Cup.

“The lads played brilliantly in the replay at Sheffield United and our reward was this big tie.

“As soon as we had won the replay, my phone was going off 
non-stop with people asking about tickets.

“It is something to look forward to – I really cannot wait until Monday night.”

Clarke’s main job on Monday will be trying to help stifle the Red Devils’ attack.

The strikers which Louis van Gaal has to choose from include Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao and James Wilson.

That is not to mention the attacking threat the visitors pose from deeper positions in the shape of Wayne Rooney, Marouane Fellaini, Juan Mata and Angel di Maria.

Said Clarke: “There are a lot of brilliant names in the United squad and facing them is something I’m looking forward to.

“I’ve been thinking quite a bit about who I’m going to play against and who will be up front for United.

“But the way we prepare for the game won’t change though – we will work leading up to it in training as we do any other game.

“We have our analyst which is a massive help.

“He puts together DVDs on the opposition teams and we look at the players we are going to be playing against.

“I look at the strikers who could play, get to know about their style.

“It will be a little bit easier in terms of preparation this time in that we know a bit more about the United players.

“Over the next few days it will be the same sort of work we do for a league game.

“There will be a few nerves around, that is only natural.

“Nerves are good – I’m always nervous before games but as soon as the whistle goes you are focused on the job in hand.

“We go into it with no fear – we know that we are the massive underdogs.

“But we are confident, having had two good league wins and the replay victory.

“The fans will be there in their numbers and we want to put in a good performance for them.

“Hopefully some of the fans who come on Monday will come back for the league games in the future.”

Clarke has faced Premier League big guns during his time at Huddersfield.

He did not manage a cup shock with the Terriers though, something the 27-year-old hopes can happen this time.

“I have been fortunate in my career to have played in a few big games in the FA Cup,” said Clarke.

“At Huddersfield we played Chelsea twice and Arsenal.

“They were all close games, I think they had to score late on to win the games.

“I was involved in those matches – we nearly took them to a replay.

“They were great memories and something I can take into this game.”

Events of the past 10 days or so suggest that Preston have put their sticky patch of form behind them.

January was a difficult time, with the third-round win over Norwich their only success of the month.

The calender flipping over into February seems to have brought with it better 

Beating Sheffield United in the replay was followed by the league wins over Coventry and Chesterfield.

Clarke said: “We had a bad patch in January and hopefully that is behind us.

“We responded to that by winning the replay and 
then got the two wins in the league which were so important.

“Our full focus until after the Chesterfield game was firmly on the league, it was important we did that.”

Successive clean sheets in the league and just one goal conceded in the replay before that, suggests the PNE defence has tightened up after the dip in January.

Clarke and Paul Huntington have been at the heart of the back four since the autumn, with Bailey Wright returning to make a three-man defence at Chesterfield.

Huntington performing in the manner he has done since forcing his way back into the side after the best part of nine months out of contention, has not gone unnoticed.

Said Clarke: “Hunts is a good player – he has been playing well. It was difficult for him at times with not being in the side but behind the scenes he was training hard.

“Whoever is called upon does a great job – that is what the gaffer has created here.

“When someone goes out of the side for whatever reason, another one comes in.

“Hunts has also popped up with a few vital goals. We want to do that as defenders as well as our main job of keeping clean sheets.

“I enjoy playing next to Hunts and love playing here.

“Personally, it has been a great move to Preston for me.

“As soon as I knew they were interested in me a couple of summers ago it was a no-brainer about joining.

“Ever since I signed the club has gone from strength to strength.

“I’ve really enjoyed my time and hopefully it won’t come to an end for a long time yet.”