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Championship Spotlight:

Lilywhites won't wilt

As part of skysports.com's Championship spotlight, Chris Burton catches up with on-loan Preston striker Leon Clarke

Championship Spotlight - Championship Spotlight Posted 17th March 2011 view comments

When Ian Baraclough was given the bullet by Scunthorpe United on Wednesday, he became the 35th managerial departure of the season, and the 10th in the Championship.

Among those to have wielded the axe this term are Preston, with Darren Ferguson having paid the price for a disappointing campaign on 29th December - making it a New Year to forget for the Ferguson household.

Clarke: Hoping to help Preston stay up, then tackle the top flight with QPR

Clarke: Hoping to help Preston stay up, then tackle the top flight with QPR

He departed with the Lilywhites wedged firmly at the foot of the second tier table, giving the Deepdale board ample ammunition as they prepared to lock and load.

It became inevitable that the trigger would be pulled, with there only so long you can remain stuck in a rut before something has to be done about said situation.

Preston opted to turn to Phil Brown upon handing Ferguson his P45, with the former Hull City boss having enjoyed considerable success in the Championship before.

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Unfortunately for Brown and co, he was unable to make the immediate impact the Lilywhites had hoped for, with the club slipping deeper into the mire rather than dragging themselves out of it.

In the end it proved to be 13th time lucky for Brown, as he finally secured his first victory as Preston boss against Scunthorpe on Tuesday - with a 3-0 win proving to be the final nail in Baraclough's coffin.

The importance of that success cannot be underestimated, with it imperative for all of those down at the bottom that they take points from those around them.

While there may still be some way to go for Preston in their efforts to stage a remarkable late recovery, they do at least have light at the end of the tunnel.

It is going to take a lot of hard work for them to clamber out of the bottom three, with the sands of time very much against them, but they have a foothold on which to build.

The confidence taken from a victory over one of the sides struggling alongside them has also offered a timely boost to the camp, with on-loan striker Leon Clarke telling skysports.com's Chris Burton that the Scunthorpe result has helped to raise morale.

Buzzing

He said: "The boys worked really hard and ground out a really good result. The manager had a game plan before the game, which the team stuck to and did really well. We thought three goals flattered them a bit, because it could have been more before the end."

No-one at Preston is preparing to throw in the towel just yet, with 10 points separating the club from safety with 10 games of the season remaining.

"We are going to keep going," added Clarke.

"The manager keeps saying we have a chance until it's mathematically impossible and we will keep going and keep trying. After that win against Scunthorpe the boys are buzzing, so we will keep going and try to put together a few back-to-back results to give ourselves a real chance."

Clarke is looking forward to the challenge of trying to help Preston pull off the 'Great Escape', with the 26-year-old fully aware of what he was letting himself in for when he completed a loan switch from Queens Park Rangers.

He said: "I wasn't playing at QPR and there was an option to go and play first-team football, which Neil Warnock wasn't really sending my way. Another team came in, which was Preston, and I jumped at the opportunity. I have been in a relegation fight before at Sheffield Wednesday, so I have got a bit of experience in this situation. I jumped at the opportunity to come here."

As mentioned by Clarke, this is not the first time he has found himself plugging away towards the wrong end of the Championship table.

It is less than 12 months since he suffered a similar fate with Sheffield Wednesday, and they ultimately succumbed to the drop.

Clarke admits he is in no rush to experience those emotions again, with it imperative that Preston can steer a course to safety.

He said: "It's never nice when you're a player involved in a relegation fight. It's not just the players either, there are the staff and people who work at the ground who could lose their jobs. It's not nice for the whole club. Everyone is in it together."

At least in Brown the Lilywhites have drafted in a man with the kind of larger-than-life character required to dig yourself out of a hole and help to keep spirits high.

Competitive

On his manager, Clarke said: "He is very enthusiastic. Since I have been here he has been enthusiastic with the players in training, helping to keep spirits up. Training is always at a high tempo, we try to play in training as competitively as possible. He has helped to keep everyone upbeat, as have the coaches. He is always trying to make sure that everyone is giving as much as they can."

Clarke is determined to give his all to the Preston cause for the remainder of the season, hopefully helping them to safety, but admits that he is keen to have a second shot at making the grade with QPR.

On his future, he said: "I have just come to Preston because there was an opportunity for first-team football. I wasn't getting games at QPR, for whatever reason, but I still want to go back there if I can. It's all about getting games here.

"Neil Warnock has given me no indication that I'm not wanted at QPR, so there is still a chance there. This time at Preston is about getting some games and hopefully scoring a few goals."

Of course, given how QPR are faring at the moment, there is every chance Clarke could be returning to a Premier League club in the summer.

He admits that the opportunity to turn out in the top flight would be too good to miss and has made him all the more determined to catch Warnock's eye.

He added: "It's a big motivation. I'm at Preston at the moment but I've been keeping an eye on how QPR are getting on. It's tight up at the top, with a lot of teams still involved, but if they can keep going then there is every chance they can get back to the Premier League. To go back to a Premier League club would be great because everyone will get a chance to prove themselves again over the summer."

For now, though, his attention is focused on the opposite end of the division, with Preston's plight standing in stark contrast to QPR's top-of-the-table heroics.

Clarke appreciates that he has to remain in the here and now, with the Lilywhites in no position to carry passengers.

Not that the former Wolves striker has any intention of letting up, with it his overriding ambition to leave Preston as he found them - as a Championship club.

Asked if the squad are confident that they can survive this season, Clarke said: "Massively confident. If we weren't, then there would be no point in playing, we would already be dead and buried. We have got to keep believing. The Scunthorpe result was a massive one for us and we just have to try and get a few more like that now."

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