Battle at the back is a big boost for PNE

Preston manager Alex Neil says Tom Clarke will have to earn the right to dislodge the pairing of Paul Huntington and Ben Davies in the centre of the Lilywhites defence.

Clarke returned to the PNE side for Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Queens Park Rangers, his first start for more than seven months after recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Ben Davies challenges QPR's David Wheeler in the air

Ben Davies challenges QPR's David Wheeler in the air

Neil was able to fit him in by moving Davies to fill the left-back vacancy 
created by 
Calum Woods’ injury.

But Clarke was substituted at half-time in a tactical switch, with Davies moving back alongside Huntington in the middle.

The increased competition for places in the defence is a joy for Neil.

When the injury pile-up was at its worse last month in the Aston Villa game, Alan Browne had to play as an emergency centre-back in the second half.

Clarke made two very brief appearances as a substitute in the away games at Bristol City and Norwich.

He then came through 90 minutes against Bury in the Lancashire Senior Cup last week.

Said Neil: “It is great to have Tom back. He played 90 
minutes at Bury and went straight into the starting 

“Everyone can see how highly we regard Tom but on Saturday I just felt we needed natural balance to move the ball quicker so I changed it round at half-time.

“We have got some great competition now.

“Paul Huntington and Ben Davies have been terrific for us so far.

“Tom will want to come in and play but equally, he has to earn the right.”

Huntington and Davies have started 11 games at centre-back together.

They were also part of a three-man back line against Derby in August.

The injury suffered by Woods in the days leading up to the QPR game, means PNE have three left-backs out.

Woods suffered what Neil called a ‘niggle’ in training and his absence is not expected to be a long one.

Neil said: “Calum would have been involved against QPR had he been fit because he did great at Norwich.

“He just got a niggle last week, which is frustrating.

“Calum is not going to be missing long term.

“I’m not sure he will make this weekend at Burton but hopefully it won’t be too long.”

Kevin O’Connor played at left-back in the second half against QPR.