Defensive options delight Preston North End boss Alex Neil

Skipper Tom Clarke has played at centre-half and right-back
Skipper Tom Clarke has played at centre-half and right-back

Alex Neil says the four-way battle for three of Preston’s defensive spots has developed into an intense battle.

The return of Tom Clarke from a long-term injury has seen him play as a right-back and at centre-half.

Skipper Clarke has stood in for Darnell Fisher, while at Queens Park Rangers last week he got the nod over Ben Davies in the middle alongside Paul Huntington.

North End manager Neil is pleased to have such a level of competition and he has relied on Clarke’s experience of late.

Neil said: “Tom is a very big figure about the place.

“It’s been difficult for him because Darnell, Hunts and Ben Davies have had great seasons.

“Had Tom been fit at the start of the season, we would have had them fighting it out from the start. But Tom came in late and it was difficult for him to get into the side at first.

“Just recently we played Tom at right-back against Leeds, Darnell was carrying a bit of a hamstring strain and it was a good opportunity to rest him.

“Last Saturday at QPR, I had an inclination that Matt Smith would play up front for them.

“He did that and I just felt Tom and Hunts was the best combination to deal with that.

“All four of them have done well and whichever of them doesn’t play against Norwich will be frustrated.

“But they will do what they always do and support their team-mates.”

Clarke missed the first four months of the campaign as he recovered from the ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered last April.

He enjoyed a run of games in December and January, in the main at right-back when Fisher had a hip problem.

But a knee injury suffered in the 2-1 win over Hull City saw Clarke miss the next month of action.

He was an unused sub for four games after his return and then played the second half of the Reading game two weeks ago.

At the other end of the pitch, Neil says there is plenty more to come from Billy Bodin after his return to form of late.

Bodin caught the eye in the Reading and Leeds matches, while he also started at QPR.

Neil said: “When you bring in players from a level below, you’ve got to make sure they don’t just come here and are happy to be here.

“They’re stepping up a level and my job is to push them on and breed their confidence.

“We’ve not yet since the best of Bill and there is more to come.

“He started really brightly and then hit a bit of a lull.

“But in recent games we have started to see what Bill is all about.

“He’s different to what we have got, is technical and wants to drift inside.”