THERE is a certain symmetry about Billy Clarke’s return to Valley Parade.

Twenty-one months on from playing his final home game in City colours, the Irishman is excitedly counting down the days to Saturday’s reunion with the stadium that still means so much.

The fact that Fleetwood are the same opposition as that play-off semi-final in May 2017 provides a sense of order being restored for the striker.

But apart from Nathaniel Knight-Percival, the squad he has come back to is completely different from that side that would go so close at Wembley.

Clarke, like every fan, can appreciate the damage that was done by Edin Rahic’s push to hastily move on the players pipped at the promotion post.

His exit was one of the first, when City eagerly snapped up Charlton’s £90,000 offer, as the squad was disassembled at an alarming speed.

Clarke said: “There was too much change too quickly, in my opinion.

“You only had to see how they started the next season. I feel we were only a couple of players away from probably winning the league – or at least being up there again where we left it.

“I think Edin thought the grass was greener getting in better players. But we had a perfect balance and everyone knew exactly what we were doing.

“It was just an odd situation. One minute I was here and the next I was gone.

“Obviously Mez (James Meredith) followed me down to London, Marshy (Mark Marshall) did the same, Josh (Cullen) went back – everyone left and Nat’s the only one still here now. Fair play to him for sticking around.”

It has been a sobering period at a club used to an upward progression over the previous five seasons leading up to the play-off loss to Millwall. But as Clarke admits, others in the game will have suffered a similar fall from grace.

“Things can soon change,” he added. “But that’s not just here – it’s happened at loads of teams.

“They’ve been on the brink of something special and then gradually drift off again. It’s like a cycle.

“We weren’t miles off it. That game at Wembley could have gone either way.

“It still pops up on my Sky now and again. Sadly, it still finishes with the same result.

“But I’m back here now and these players are more than capable of stringing results together like they have been doing.

“It’s been a difficult 18 months for the club but that’s done now. You look at the last nine or 10 results and the club is slowly getting back to where it should be.

“Hopefully we can get out of this and then reassess.”

Jordan Archer’s finger-tip save to deny Clarke at Wembley remains evidence of football’s fine margins.

While the overwhelming number of messages on social media when his signing was announced were positive, inevitably there were a few still having a pop over that pivotal moment.

He said: “A few slaughtered me and blamed me for this position that we’re in! But there were a lot of really nice messages and I appreciated that.

“The supporters just want some hope. But what I have learned from Bradford fans is that if you give everything, they will love and appreciate you.

“That was the mentality that Phil Parkinson put into all of us back then and it’s stayed with me. I know exactly what they want to see.

“I’m going to give my all and I’m sure we’re good enough to get out of trouble.

“It’s going to be tough and there are going to be more up and downs. But I have full faith in the squad that we will stay up.

“It would be a nice way to end the season for all the fans, who travel in their numbers and still make a good atmosphere at home games.”

Clarke will also appreciate a week without being subjected to the dubious pleasures of the M1. Arriving in time to be involved in Saturday’s draw at Wycombe meant making two round trips towards London is as many days after getting the deal done.

Reunited properly with his young family in the West Yorkshire home they never left when he joined Charlton, Clarke is excited now to reacquaint himself with Valley Parade.

“I’m so looking forward to playing there again,” he admitted.

“When I used to drive beneath the stand on Midland Road, I’d look up and the memories would come back of playing there when it was full.

“I think back to good games I had there when the atmosphere was unbelievable. I can’t wait to experience that again and play with a smile on my face.”