They say all good things must come to an end, and that was the case for Tom Clarke on Tuesday evening.
Preston confirmed at 8pm last night that Clarke’s time at Deepdale is over. His contract will expire on June 30th, and he will then be free to move on.
Yesterday was the deadline for any short-term contract extensions in order for players to see out the season. Paul Gallagher signed one, but Clarke was allowed to leave Preston after seven years of service.
When Preston signed Clarke on a free transfer from Huddersfield Town in 2013, few could have expected that he would become such an integral part of the club’s rebirth.
Clarke had been known for being injury-prone at Huddersfield. He was once highly-regarded, turning out for England at youth level. Sadly, a series of injuries impacted his career, limiting him to just 97 league appearances for the Terriers.
Huddersfield released him in 2013, and Simon Grayson decided to reunite with him. They had worked together at Huddersfield, and he became Grayson’s first signing as Preston boss – a deal which really paid off just months later.
Clarke’s first major input as a Preston player was to score the memorable last-gasp winner against Blackpool in August 2013. Clarke, who played at right back in that game and kept Tom Ince quiet, popped up at the back post to head home Lee Holmes’ free kick.
No matter how many times Clarke went on to play for Preston, or how many goals he scored, he would always and forever be remembered as the man who put the ball in the Blackpool net.
After relegation, the torrid end to the Phil Brown era and the chaos and disillusionment of Graham Westley’s spell, Clarke’s winner against Blackpool – a team a division above North End at the time – really kickstarted the revival under Grayson.
Whether at centre back or right back, Clarke was one of Grayson’s most trusted players. Come the 2014-15 season, Clarke was club captain at Deepdale in what proved to be a truly memorable campaign.
The images of Clarke being mobbed by Preston fans following the playoff semi-final win over Chesterfield is right up there with his goal against Blackpool. Clarke had just led his side to Wembley, weeks after the nightmare defeat Colchester United. Preston fans were able to celebrate that with Clarke, who was carried aloft by supporters who were mobbing their club captain.
Later that month, Clarke won promotion with Preston on the famed Wembley turf. He and John Welsh lifted the trophy as North End beat Swindon Town 4-0 to reach the Championship. Two years after being let go by Huddersfield, Clarke was back in the Championship and ready to show his worth.
In his first two seasons back in the Championship, Clarke was solid and reliable, making more than 35 appearances across all competitions in both seasons. He remained captain and played an important role up until Grayson’s exit to Sunderland in 2017.
Sadly, the last three seasons have been a little more difficult for him. He has gradually faded out of the picture at centre back under Alex Neil; Ben Davies emerged as the left-sided centre back, Paul Huntington remained consistent, Jordan Storey showed promise and Patrick Bauer arrived, making an instant impact.
The injuries began to crop up again, with Clarke’s influence steadily decreasing. Now fifth-choice centre back, Clarke has sometimes been trusted at right back – but errors and a lack of attacking quality mean fans have grown frustrated with his displays there.
With all that considered, the right decision was to let him go. He will no doubt be a huge loss to the dressing room, as Clarke has been part of the furniture for seven years now, but with his on-pitch importance fading, North End clearly felt it wasn’t worth extending his deal.
The saddest part of this is that we don’t get to give him a goodbye. The global pandemic means football fans won’t be allowed inside stadiums for a long time yet, and Clarke won’t receive the emotional send-off he deserves.
Maybe one day, Clarke will come back to Deepdale and get the farewell his years of service have merited. For now, we must look back on his great times; the goal against Blackpool, those Chesterfield celebrations, promotion at Wembley and even the winner at Cardiff City in 2017.
We can’t give you the rapturous farewell you deserve, Clarkey, but thank you for being an outstanding leader and servant to this football club – it won’t be forgotten.