The club captain was back on the bench for last night’s 0-0 draw with Bolton after seven months on the sidelines with a ruptured Achilles tendon.
With the PNE defence still down to the bare bones, Clarke’s return, even as an unused substitute, was a welcome one for a number of reasons.
“He could have played if needed, I wouldn’t have put him on the bench if it wasn’t the case,” Neil said.
“However he’s not played any competitive football whatsoever.
“He’s not played any bounce matches and it’s highly unusual to put him on the bench before doing that.
“That’s normally a box you’d like to tick. It was needs must tonight though. Tom’s presence as much as anything else was going to hopefully try and inspire the squad and help.
“He’s a vocal leader and a captain. Any assistance and help that he can contribute to the team is important and that’s why he’s involved.”
Clarke has been training for around a fortnight with Neil admitting he would have liked to give his skipper more of a gradual return to action.
“When you’re out for that length of time what you need is match sharpness and Tom won’t have any because we’ve not had matches for him,” the PNE boss said.
“We’d like to get matches organised for him behind closed doors but we’re in a situation at the moment where he might have to get thrust in at the deep end.”
Calum Woods was the other major boost at the back, returning at right back with Marnick Vermijl injured and managing to get through the full 90 minutes.
Man of the match Ben Pearson appeared to be limping late on but Neil was confident it was just cramp for the midfield man and he would be fine to face Bristol City on Tuesday night.