TOM CLARKE has been ruled out for the season.
Town's 18-year-old defender was given the dismal news after having an exploratory knee operation.
Renowned sports injury surgeon Professor Christer Rolf diagnosed a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament.
The Sheffield-based specialist will carry out a knee reconstruction in another month.
"Tom will have to wear a brace until then in order for the swelling to settle down," explained Town physio Lee Martin.
"There was a lot of blood inside the joint, which has been cleared.
"Professor Rolf will graft tendon from another area into the knee and it's generally a very successful operation.
"The surgery will get stability back into the joint, but then there will be a lot of rehabilitation.
"That's why the timescale is so long, but the plan is to have Tom flying on the first day of next pre-season."
The injury, similar to that suffered by Michael Owen last season, came during last Saturday's 2-1 League I win over Carlisle at the Galpharm.
Clarke carried on after treatment before being replaced in first-half stoppage time.
"Tom went up for a header and an opponent landed on him," said Martin. "He felt able to continue, but the injury became too troublesome. No further damage will have been caused by playing on."
Town boss Peter Jackson, whose side go to Port Vale tomorrow (preview Page 47) said: "It's a big blow, but the key thing is that Tom gets the right treatment and comes back fit and strong."