Returning Preston skipper Tom Clarke wants to be in the thick of it after brief cameos
All Tom Clarke wants to do now is get a touch of the ball in the Championship.
The returning Preston captain, back after seven months out injured, has made two very brief cameos from the bench against Bristol City and Norwich.
What are the likely line-ups? Who are the key men? Preston v QPR - All you need to knowBut having watched on for so long from the sidelines, the North End defender is yet to have the satisfactory feeling of boot on ball.
Sent on as a late substitute the 29-year-old didn’t get chance to clear his lines as PNE held on for victory against the Robins or in the draw at Carrow Road a few days later.
His appearance in Norfolk might have been the latest ever by a Preston player in a regulation league match.
Clarke replaced Paul Huntington, struggling with cramp, in the 14th minute of stoppage time at the end of the game after Norwich fan David ‘Spud’ Thornhill had stepped in as fourth official after an injury to assistant referee Mark Jones.
“It was nice to get on late on at Norwich but I don’t think I touched it again,” said the club captain.
“I tried to run around and get my head and foot on things but I’ve not been on long enough to do anything. It’ll come.
“It was a weird one coming on and seeing the fourth official have jeans on. I’ve never seen that before.
“The delay wasn’t ideal and they had a free-kick quite high up as well which we had to defend.
“To have a 10-minute break and then to go back into a set play like that, I thought the lads did brilliantly.
“They kept themselves busy, had a chat with the staff and then got back out there.
“We dealt with it well and we came away with a point.”
His comeback from the ruptured Achilles tendon picked up at former club Huddersfield back in April stepped up another gear on Tuesday.
Clarke played 90 minutes at the heart of the defence in PNE’s Lancashire Senior Cup exit at the hands of Bury, an important step to playing regular football again in the Championship.
In normal circumstances it would have come before appearing on Alex Neil’s bench but the Preston boss has had little choice when it comes to defenders in recent weeks.
“It was another box that needed ticking,” Clarke said.
“I’ve got back in and around the squad, been on the bench and stuff but it was sort of a needs must because of a lack of numbers.
“Ideally I would have done things the other way around.
“We were struggling for numbers though and when the gaffer asked me and there was only going to be one answer.
“The cameos were great but it was in the back of my mind that I needed to get the minutes in and it was good to get 90 in.
“I probably wasn’t down to do 90 but to get that in the bank is brilliant and I feel good and ready to go.”
As well as getting important game time under his belt in the county cup, Clarke says it was an important outing to get used to competitive action again and get over any nerves about how his Achilles would react.
“It’s just about getting that timing in,” he said.
“They had a big striker so it was about jumping for headers and landing, stretching for balls and just reacting to stuff in a game situation and seeing how it felt.
“I was just really pleased.
“You want to see how it reacts to the strain as well.
“I’d done a lot of it before in training with the physios and the fitness staff and that stood me in good stead.
“Game situations are different but you’re soon not thinking about it and you just get on with it.
“You’ve got your mind focused on your game which is what you want.”
Clarke has returned at a time when PNE’s injury crisis, Neil at one point being without eight defenders, has eased.
Ben Davies, Calum Woods and Darnell Fisher are all also back in action.
Clarke admits it was tough watching on from the sidelines, unable to help the cause when needed most.
“Timing wise if I’d been a month earlier or a few weeks earlier I would have been back out there straight away,” he said.
“It’s been a difficult period for us.
“We keep harping on about the injuries but to have seven or eight out long term has proven very difficult for us.
“The lads that have been in there have been tremendous for us.
“To get some bodies back now with more to come is a real plus.”
Four straight defeats came when numbers were at their most stretched but things have picked up since the last international break.
Five points have come from three games, the displays on the road particularly catching the eye.
“The Bristol City game was a massive game,” said Clarke.
“We had a difficult period before that so to go there and get a great result was really important.
“Then to go to Norwich which is a tough game, to come away with the points we did from two tough away games was brilliant.”
Next up Ian Holloway brings his Queens Park Rangers side to Deepdale on Saturday, fresh from two stoppage time goals handing them a dramatic 2-2 draw against Brentford on Monday night.
“I watched the game on Monday night on TV,” Clarke said.
“Brentford played really well against them, it was a difficult game for them.
“But Ian Holloway’s teams never give up, they’ve always got that weapon of bringing Matt Smith on and changing the game completely and going long and getting the knock downs which they did and they managed to get the draw in the end.”
Despite the wobble, North End are still right in the mix in 13th, four points and four places better off than QPR ahead of the weekend’s meeting.
“With the games that we’ve had the lads are going in with real confidence now,” said Clarke.
“It’s a game in front of our own fans and three points would really push us up that table.
“It’s still very tight and we can definitely make up some ground.”