The talented defender, who has just gone 20, has played only 14 minutes of senior action in the last 14 months after surgery and a knee reconstruction.
He thought he was ready to return in August, when he sneaked on as a substitute in the JP Trophy defeat at Grimsby, but there was more agony around the corner.
Now, after two successful run-outs in the reserves, Clarke is more optimistic than ever that he can soon make a return to Andy Ritchie’s first-team squad and help them push for a top-six place in League I.
“I’ve played in a few practice games and had the two official appearances against Leicester and Shrewsbury reserves, so I’m pleased with the way things are going and, all being well, it won’t be too long before I’m back,” said Clarke, who still does regular gym work and swimming as part of his rehabilitation.
“In the build-up to Christmas I had a word with the gaffer and told him I was feeling fine, but ideally he just wants me to get a few more reserve games under my belt, which is fine.
“I accept that I’ve been out a long time and I need to play some matches and then kick on from there.
“If I can keep progressing like I have been over the past few weeks then hopefully I might sneak in the back door if needed in the first team.”
It’s been a long and lonely road back to fitness for Clarke, whose brother Nathan went through similar problems a few years ago and has returned to be one of Ritchie’s most consistent performers this term.
Tom aims to follow suit and is just relishing being back in the fold at the Galpharm.
“I’m hoping 2008 is going to be a lot better for me than last year,” mused Clarke, an England Under 19 international who hasn’t played a league game since October 2006.
“It’s not just been tough for me but it’s been very hard for my family as well, because they want to see me playing every bit as much as I want to be out there.
“Every footballer wants to be playing matches every week of there career and it’s a nightmare when you can’t because of injury, but hopefully 2008 will be good again and I can get back to flying in the first team like I was at the time of my injury.”
Clarke added: “Nathan has been a massive help, because he has suffered similar things in the past and knows exactly what I’m going through.
“He had to work hard and wait a long time to get back, but he’s played almost every game this season and is proof that you can come back just as good as ever.
“To be honest, I was confident from the start that I would make a full recovery and, back at the start of the season, when I was playing games, I was feeling okay.
“It was just afterwards when the aching would start that I was worried about the knee, especially when it would stiffen up, and that’s why they told me to take the extra rest for a couple of months to make sure everything was absolutely right.”
Clarke appeared on the bench five times, entering the fray only once at Grimsby in the JP Trophy, but hasn’t made the 16 since the 2-0 defeat at Crewe early in September.
“Maybe I just tried to force my way back a little bit too soon and the extra time off seems to have done me a lot of good,” he explained.
“I’m confident, I’m flying into tackles and, to be honest, I’ve forgotten about the injury when I’m out there on the pitch, which has to be a good thing.
“At the moment I’m feeling as fit as you like, it’s just the match fitness that needs sharpening up.
“But if the manager wanted me to play then I would be ready. I might ideally need a few more run-outs, but in myself I feel ready to play when needed.
“I’m loving being in and around the place again, being among the lads on a training day and now getting some matches as well, so everything is positive and I can’t wait to get back.”
Clarke is still doing extra work to build up the muscles in his legs, and he also uses a polystyrene roll to help free-up his leg muscles both before and after training.
“I’m working hard to build up my leg muscles and doing a lot in the gym and the pool, but the roller is a good way of relaxing and making sure you are loose,” he said.
“It’s an idea we pinched off Bolton Wanderers when Peter Jackson was manager and I like it, because it irons out your calves and your thighs.
“I use it before and after we go on the training ground and also on matchdays and I find it very helpful.
“I don’t like to miss any gym sessions either and I spend so much time in the pool that people think I’m crazy. I’ve even joined a gym near my home which has a pool so that I can keep things going there as well.”
Now that he’s getting close to full availability, Clarke is understandably getting itchy for a return to first-team football.
“It’s a great feeling to play in the first team for Town and I can’t wait to experience it again,” he smiled.
“The thought of running out there onto the pitch with a big crowd and everything to play for is very exciting. I can still remember what it was like when I was 17 and I’m sure it will feel just the same again when I eventually return.
“Hopefully the fans will be behind me – because they’ve given me great backing all the way through – and I can’t wait.
“The medical staff at the club and the physio, Lee Martin, have worked wonders with me and I’m feeling very confident about my game and about the rest of this season.
“I’m very pleased with how things are going and it’s just a matter of making that next step up.”