ANYONE wanting to take Nathan Clarke's place in the Town starting line-up had better be ready for a battle.
The classy 20-year-old defender is thoroughly enjoying his run in the team after 18 months of injury agony - and he is determined to stay there.
Clarke would like nothing more than to play his part in a promotion push and admits he is excited by the look of the Division III table at the moment.
Having returned to a tumultuous reception as a substitute against Leyton Orient, Clarke has missed only two games since September and he has no plans to miss any more.
"If someone wants my place then they had better cut my head off or injure me in training," he said, with an alarming degree of seriousness.
"I'm back now and that is my position, not anyone else's.
"After all the injury nightmares I'm feeling absolutely fine, I've been pleased with my performances lately and I just want to kick on from here.
"The gaffer has put a lot of trust in me, which is brilliant, and I want to repay him by making sure we do as well as we can.
"You only have to look at the table to see how close things are and we've all been thinking about the fact we are only four points behind Oxford in third.
"If we can push on from here, we might not be talking about play-offs we might be talking about automatic promotion.
"That's not getting carried away, that's just realising that we've got everything to play for."
Clarke was named in the Third Division team of the week following his winning goal at Torquay and terrific defensive display which went with it at Plainmoor.
Last Saturday, he walked away from the McAlpine with a bottle of champagne after being voted the Blue and White Foundation player of the month.
"It's fantastic and I can't tell you how good it feels to put all that injury stuff right behind me," said Clarke, who was well ahead of his mate Jonathan Stead in terms of development until serious knee trouble took its toll.
"It's so far behind me now that I'm not looking back any more, just looking ahead and aiming to make this a successful season for the club.
"Last week's win against Lincoln was a fantastic result for us and three points we desperately needed.
"We knew it was going to be a real battle and we did a tremendous amount of solid preparation.
"The gaffer had all the defence under the cosh all week on the training ground, having high balls fired in at us and making sure we defended them with our lives.
"It was hard graft, but it certainly paid off with the points and we're all delighted about that."
Clarke accepted his share of blame in the mix-up with led to Marcus Richardson giving Lincoln the lead in a match which will always be remembered for Pawel Abbott's controversial winner.
"We started the match thinking all three of us at the back would be basically marking, but Lincoln came with two up front and another just sagging off to pick up Jon Worthington," he explained.
"To be honest, we were a bit of a mess because it took us a while to work things out and sort things out and the goal was an absolute nightmare for me and for Phil as well.
"We were just caught a bit flat because we hadn't come to terms with what they were doing and I was still trying to mark when I should have been covering the other two.
"Once we got everything sorted, I thought we defended pretty well, Worthy took away one of their attackers and I thought we were able to take the game to them, but it was a hell of a battle."
Clarke says Abbott's goal, which earned an eighth win in 10 matches, has remained a strong topic of conversation all week.
"I told Pav after the game that he did well to continue and put the ball in the net," he said.
"Had that been me in the same situation, I would probably have dragged the ball back or left it where it was - thinking I was offside - rather than carrying on and putting it in the net.
"Pav says he never heard a whistle or saw the flag go up and that's why he just carried on.
"I thought he did brilliantly and the fact he played to the whistle when all the defenders and keeper stopped earned us a great three points."
Clarke was quick to praise Abbott's new strike partner Andy Booth for his contribution to the win and to a week in which Town collected seven points from nine.
"It was vital for us to get an equaliser so early in the second half and, to be fair, Boothy did superbly to make it," recalled Clarke.
"He set me up at Torquay and now he's set Sodje up at a critical stage in the game.
"It's a Boothy trademark to pull away to the back post and knock the ball back across, and it's up to the rest of us to finish them.
"Sodje did well and it was just the start we needed to the second half, especially as Lincoln came at us with everyting after Pav's goal.
"Phil made a couple of great saves though and, considering he has been a bit down because of a couple of goals which have gone in recently, I thought he was tremendous.
"The one-handed save near the end was brilliant.
"I know that's what he's there for and he's only doing his job, but he has won us the game."
Clarke made a surprise debut for Town on September 8, 2001, in a 1-1 draw against Stoke at the Britannia.
He became a regular in Lou Macari's side which finished in the top six, but he missed the play-offs because of the knee trouble which restricted him to just two and a half games as Town were relegated last term.
This season, Clarke returned as a substitute in late September, but he has not looked back since making his first start under Jackson at Southend in October.