Stand-in Preston North End skipper Greg Cunningham says club captain Tom Clarke will still play a big role at Deepdale this season.
The popular Irishman is set to cover for the leader of the PNE dressing room on the field while he recovers from a ruptured Achilles tendon that he picked up at the tail end of the previous campaign and is set to rule him out until at least the new year.
New boss Alex Neil has seen enough in Cunningham, a consistent performer since joining the Lilywhites on a free transfer from Bristol City two years ago, to hand him the armband on an interim basis.
While relishing his new responsibility, the 26-year-old insists he can’t wait to hand the captaincy back to a mainstay of North End’s defensive unit in recent years.
“To lose a player like Clarkey for the stint that we have is heartbreaking,” said Cunningham.
“He’s working hard in the gym and we’re looking forward to getting him back.
“He’s around all the boys because he’s a vital part of this team.
“He came to Cork during pre-season and did his rehab with us there and is a great character.
“We’re counting down the days until he’s back because like all the fans we want to see him fit again.”
Cunningham had his own injury fears towards the end of last season, fracturing his tibia in the defeat to Norwich at Deepdale.
He has been fortunate however and only missed the final few games of the season before returning fit and ready to go for the new season.
“It was a small fracture and I only ended up missing three games,” said Cunningham.
“If an injury can come at a good time it probably was the best time.
“I had a nice change of scenery getting back home, resting up and doing my rehab.
“I worked hard over the summer though to make sure I was back fit and luckily I was back for the first day of pre-season and ready to go.
“With the way things went with the gaffer it was important for me to come back fit.
“I’m delighted to be back training and playing.
“As far as I’m concerned the injury is done and dusted and I can look forward.”
As Cunningham alludes to, being ready for the first day back was important, July 1 being Simon Grayson’s final day in charge of PNE.
Former Norwich boss Neil has since arrived and Cunningham says it was soon business as usual with the new man at the helm.
“We’re professionals at the end of the day,” said the former Manchester City youngster, one of seven Irish players in the PNE squad.
“It came out of the blue a little bit but that’s football.
“You have to expect the unexpected and there had been speculation around Simon Grayson for a while but he’s gone and we just carried on as normal.
“We worked hard on the training pitch and with the gaffer coming in things have quickly gone back to normal.
“He came in and we had a couple of days in Preston and then we headed to Cork.
“It was a nice week for him to get to know us all and get settled in.
“There were nice facilities down in Fota Island and it was nice to be around the boys to get a good few training sessions in working on getting fit, getting sharp and how the gaffer wants us to play.
“It’s a new chapter for the club.”