Last season ended early for Preston skipper Tom Clarke at The Den and it is back to the same ground tomorrow as he looks to start the new campaign on a high against Millwall.
Clarke scored his only goal of the 2018/19 season in the 3-1 victory over the Lions in February but was to hobble through the last few minutes of the game with a damaged knee.
That injury meant he did not kick a ball for the remaining 10 weeks but that is all behind him now as he prepares to start his seventh season at PNE.
It it likely to be at right-back where Clarke starts the campaign, the position he has played throughout pre-season.
While more at home in the middle, the 31-year-old is happy to play wherever he is required.
“Darnell Fisher had a hernia operation so he was missing for part of the pre-season,” Clarke said.
“So it was a case of me playing the games there and as long as I’m playing, I’ll fit in anywhere for the team.
“I played there quite a lot when I first came here to Preston and I’ve had games there since.
“It is a position which has changed dramatically over the years, you have to be something of a winger as well as a full-back.
“The middle is where I’m more comfortable but I feel I can help the team as a right-back in both boxes.”
Clarke was operating as a right-back when he found the net at Millwall on February 23.
It was the second goal in a 27-minute first-half blitz from North End which saw them go 3-0 up.
However, the day was to end painfully for Clarke.
“The performance and result that day was really good but it was a strange one for me because of the injury I got,” Clarke said.
“I got a kick on the knee towards the end and I knew something wasn’t quite right but we had made all our substitutions so I wasn’t coming off.
“It was a case of getting through to the end as best I could to make sure we won the game which we did.
“If we could go there and play on Saturday how we did last season, that would be great.
“To be 3-0 up early on was brilliant, some of our play was excellent.
“It’s not often you get a game like that at Millwall, normally matches there are tight and physical.
“To score one of the goals was nice and I’d like to do that more, be among the goals this season.”
Clarke has ditched the mask which he wore for a chunk of last season to protect his broken nose.
That injury happened when he clashed heads with former PNE striker Jordan Hugill in the 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough last November.
He broke the bone but the more serious damage was to the nasal cartilage which saw him develop breathing difficulties.
On the outside, Clarke’s nose still looks damaged but on the inside things are a lot better.
“My wife reminds me every day that my nose is bent,” said Clarke with a chuckle.
“I met the surgeon in the summer and he was pleased with how things were progressing.
“It is something which I can get done properly at the end of my career.
“I’ve played all of the pre-season without the mask and I feel confident to put my head in.
“As yet I haven’t had any knocks on it but that will probably change soon!
“The mask did its job and I needed to wear it last season.
“It wasn’t perfect, if I went to head the ball and got a bit of a knock, the mask would slip a bit.
“But my nose was in a bad way and it gave me a lot of protection.
“When I was younger, the older defenders I used to see always had a black eye or their nose bent across the other side of their face – I suppose that is me now.”
Clarke is pleased that the new season is here and that pre-season training has been put to bed.
The last five weeks have been hard graft for the North End squad as they have been put through their paces. As Clarke points out, though, the modern-day pre-season routine is far more science-led than it was when he started out as a professional.
He said: “Pre-season is never easy although it is easier than it once was.
“You have got the sport science, you have got the bleep tests where you run until they tell you rather than you run until you are sick – that is how it used to be.
“You have the running to do but a lot of fitness comes from the work you do with the ball.
“The training we do here is structured and they make sure you don’t go beyond your limits.
“Away from training, as a player you have to look after yourself, get the right rest and recovery.
“When you are younger you tend to think you are bulletproof but it is really important to do the right things.
“After training I’ll get home and spend time with the kids but once they’ve gone to bed, I’ll go to the gym late on and do a cool down in the pool.”