When Wythenshawe Town’s Michael Clarke joined Northwich Victoria as a young player there were plenty of expectations on his shoulders and they’ll be even more on them on Saturday when he runs out against his old mates in the Buildbase FA Vase.
As he told The Non-League Paper this week, it was 2011 when he arrived at Vics with their goal-shy attack needing a forward to start finding the net again.
When he departed five years later, a stay punctuated by an unhappy spell at Rushall, his transition to an imposing and reliable defender impressed suitors Stockport County.
“I’d never have played in the National League if I carried on up front!” he quipped.
Asked to stand in for an injured teammate on the final afternoon of the 2013-2014 campaign, Clarke was chosen afterwards as the best performer on the field when Vics kept a clean sheet.
He stayed at the heart of their back-line for the next two seasons, both of which ended with them contesting the Northern Premier League’s First Division North promotion play-offs.
In between, they also reached the FA Cup second round with Jim Gannon as manager.
Clarke said: “My best memories in football are from that time, no question.
“I told Jim it was a one-off, playing back there, but I’m relieved he didn’t listen because I think it changed the course of my career.”
Vics lost at the semi-finals stage last season to Chertsey, who went on to lift the trophy at Wembley, only after a penalty shoot-out. The anguish they felt then will act as a spur this time around.
However, the North West Counties League Premier Division promotion-hopefuls should be wary of opponents that have won three ties already to reach this stage – two against higher-ranked foes.
“We’re underdogs but that’s suited us so far,” said Clarke, who was part of a Northwich side that pushed Newport County to the brink during an FA Trophy quarter-final in 2012.
“There are decent lads here, a lot of them that have played at a higher level, and we back ourselves. People might believe Vics should beat us, but we can surprise them.”
If they do, then the Sharston-based back-marker hopes fans of a club he represented close to 200 times won’t hold it against him.
Indeed, a chance to play again at Wincham Park would have felt remote when he left Stalybridge in February.
Clarke said: “I’d stopped enjoying it and thought that was me done. That buzz from being at Stockport and playing in front of big crowds had gone.
“But there are a few lads here I’ve played with in the past and they talked me into signing on. It’s different to what I’m used to, but I reckon I’m adjusting.”
It’s what he’s good at.