Skipper Tom Clarke ready to battle on as Preston look to finish season on a high
It was 34 minutes that pretty much summed up Tom Clarke - certainly in the eyes of Preston North End fans.
Just after the hour mark in Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Norwich the skipper fell awkwardly after an aerial challenge and picked up a hamstring problem.
Down for some time, the defender was strapped up by physio Matt Jackson and with all three changes made by Alex Neil, Clarke battled on despite being obviously injured to all inside Deepdale.
He was not shifted out of position and harm’s way and despite limping after every meaningful involvement, the 30-year-old even finished the game up front as PNE went in search of a winner that never came.
“We’ve watched it back and I’ve come over the top of someone and someone’s landed on my back and it just put it in a weird position,” said Clarke.
“I knew it wasn’t a hamstring injury like when you’re sprinting and it goes. Then you’ve got come off.
“I knew it was something I could maybe carry on with and I did that.
“It was sore but there was no other thought in my head.
“I knew we didn’t have any more subs and it was a big game so I didn’t want to come off and put the team down a player.
“So I just had to carry on. The physio strapped it up and that’s what I did. We had three games to go and I want to be involved.”
The big question now is whether someone Neil described as a “leader of men” post-match will be fit for the final two games, starting at Sheffield United on Saturday.
Clarke has endured a frustrating campaign that only started in November after rupturing his Achilles tendon at the end of last season. “I’m not feeling too bad,” said the captain, who was also unavailable for a spell due to a knee injury.
“My hamstring was a little bit sore after the game so I went for a scan which showed a little bit of damage but hopefully it will settle down and I’ll be okay for the next two games.
“I had a couple of days off it to see how it reacts and I’ve done a little bit of training with the physio.
“It’s nice to be back involved and playing the games so it’s frustrating that it’s happened.
“That’s part and parcel of the game, though.”
North End head to Bramall Lane with their chance of making the top six now an outside one.
The stalemate with Norwich at Deepdale means the gap to the play-offs is four points for Neil’s side, who sit ninth in the Championship with two to play.
“The lads and the staff have worked tirelessly throughout the season and to still have something to play for is brilliant for us,” said Clarke.
“We’re disappointed with the result against Norwich but we go to Sheffield United now and know our objectives.
“That’s to win both games and we’ll look to go and do that.
“We don’t it to fizzle out. We’ve got to keep going, keep working hard, get back on the training pitch and go again.”
The Blades find themselves in a similar position, a point and two places further back in 11th, and it is a ‘win or bust’ clash for both this weekend.
The two sides are no strangers, North End having won the league meeting at Deepdale 1-0 in December, with Chris Wilder’s men reversing the scoreline in the FA Cup fourth-round meeting at Bramall Lane just over a month later.
“You could see at Norwich with the chances how we were pushing and pushing,” said Clarke.
“Unfortunately we couldn’t get that goal but it will be the same at Sheffield United.
“It’s another tough game, they’re in and around us and pushing as well.
“It’s set up nicely for a really good game and we’ll be doing everything we can to get the win. They are a team that formation-wise are a little bit different.
“It’s something we know about though, because we’ve played against them this season.
“They were two tough, tight games and we’re expecting that again.
“It will be a good atmosphere and our fans will travel well.
“It’s one of those games where we need to put everything into to try and get three points. Our only focus anyway was to go there and get a result but even more so with the results, especially on Tuesday night.
“We need to win to stay involved.”
Whatever happens, this has certainly been a season of progress for North End under a new boss.
“We knew we had a squad that finished 11th twice and the staff that have come in have taken us that one step further,” said Clarke.
“You can tell that with our performances out on the field. We’ve had a great season and have been pushing for the play-offs for the majority of it.
“The lads have done brilliantly and that’s down to the staff and how hard they work.
“That all filters down to us.
“We’re a young, hungry group and coming off the back of two decent seasons we wanted to improve on that.
“I’m pleased that we’ve improved again but there’s two games left to achieve something.”
From Neil’s point of view, the players also deserve plenty of credit, squad and manager appearing to be an excellent fit for one another.
“The gaffer’s got a group that wants to work and learn and I think that’s what he wants,” Clarke said.
“He’s thorough in what he does day in, day out. He works tirelessly.
“That helps the lads because we all want to improve and I think this manager can do that with us.
“You’ve got some brilliant teams in the Championship who have spent a lot of money.
“To be up there and in the mix and still in with a shout with two games to go is brilliant. It’s testament to the players. It’s exciting times.”
“Our only focus is to get the results, the wins that we need.
“But if at the end we haven’t achieved what we wanted to then hopefully we can finish strongly and start next season on a positive note.”