Five days away from his 30th birthday, next Thursday could be another watershed day for Preston North End’s popular captain Tom Clarke.
After a difficult year – that started so well with his winner against Burton Albion in the opening game of 2017 – the Lilywhites’ No.5 is ready to put that behind him, as he strides towards 2018 and potentially his 200th appearance in PNE colours over the busy festive period.
After seven months on the sidelines, after rupturing his Achilles tendon against former club Huddersfield Town at the John Smith’s Stadium in April, his returned to the starting XI in the last home game against Queens Park Rangers.
And reflecting on his early return from injury, the Halifax-born central defender admits that that moment of leading the team back out at Deepdale, was one he has been focusing on every single day of the 200-plus he has spent out of the side.
“It has been brilliant to get back in the team; it has been a lot earlier that I probably thought I would,” he told The One And Only at Springfields earlier this week. “It just shows how well the rehab went and how hard we worked as a unit to get back, get fit and get on that pitch, because that was the goal.
“As soon as I had the operation, all I had in my head was that image of getting back into the team and leading the team out and thankfully I have been able to do that.
“The Queens Park Rangers game was another box ticked.
“As soon as I had the operation and I could crack on with the rehab, that was all I pictured in my head – being able to walk back out, lead the team out and literally that is all I have been thinking about for the last seven months, so to get back playing in front of the fans is brilliant.
“It was about having tunnel vision. Focusing on what the outcome would be after the injury.
“Of course you are devastated initially and then you go through different stages and emotions, but mentally you have to be quite strong and I have always had that end goal of being back out there, playing again and leading the team out, so I am pleased that it has happened.
“There has been a lot of hard work that has gone into it and now it is slowly paying off. There is still a long way to go, but it is a start.”
The Christmas period could bring the man who wrote his name in club folklore with his winner against Blackpool in only his second appearance, the tally of 200 games for the club and he is looking forward to making it many more, but admits he has his family, the physio staff at the club and the fans to thank for their support in getting him back into that place.
“It is a nice milestone. When I signed for the club four or five years ago, my aim was to come in and play as many games as I could and I feel like I have kept myself as fit as I could, before the injury, played a lot of games and I want to carry that on, get in the team and try and nail down a position once again.
“I am looking forward to putting 2017 behind me and starting afresh in 2018. It has been a difficult period for my family as well. It is nice to be able to see the light now. There is still a long way to go; I am still working hard with it and gaining more fitness and muscle mass – so there is still a lot to achieve, but everything is going in the right direction.
“My family have been a massive part of me getting back to where I am. I was not in the best of moods after the injury, so to be stuck at home on crutches on the couch, not moving around and not being able to help with the little ’un wasn’t easy, but the wife has been brilliant, my mum and dad have been brilliant, so they have been a great help.
“The physio staff from day one have been behind me, pushing me, which has been great and we have now achieved the goal of being back and being on that pitch. I just want to keep on improving and keep getting fitter.
“It was a great welcome back from the fans as well in the last home game. I got a lot of messages regarding the response I got.
“When you are out there, in the moment, you tend to not see and hear what is going on, but I received a lot of messages and I have seen the highlights back and I can’t thank the supporters enough for their backing.
“Since I signed for the club they have been brilliant with me and to get back as quick as I have has been what I wanted to – so I could get back out there for the fans,” he added.
You can read plenty more from the skipper, along with features and interviews with Andy Boyle, Mick ‘Baz’ Rathbone, Calum Woods and Declan Rudd, plus all the usual features and articles in our 100 page edition of The One And Only this weekend.
The official matchday programme will be on sale from the Sir Tom Finney ticket office from Friday afternoon and then from inside and outside the stadium on matchday for just £3, don’t miss out!