IT WAS a milestone that passed under the radar for Nathan Clarke.

His wife Lauren had mocked up a special shirt to mark 400 senior appearances. But his 500th against Doncaster ten days ago went virtually unnoticed.

“I wasn’t too aware of it,” admitted the likeable City defender. “But it’s obviously nice to keep ticking them off - I’ll have a word with the kit man now to get a 500 one done!”

Clarke is the old head in the back four but can identify with the progress of fellow centre half Reece Burke. He was a similar age to the West Ham teenager when he first broke into the Huddersfield team.

Now 32, he can still vividly remember his debut against Stoke in September 2001.

“I got thrown in by Lou Macari. I hadn’t been expecting it at all.

“I’d been travelling with the team and been involved in training now and again. But I’d not played much in the reserves or stuff like that.

“We travelled down to Stoke and I didn’t expect anything. Then he announced the team in the dressing room and my name got read out.

“I’d not even brought my bag off the coach – I’d been given no hint at all that I might play.

“I probably would have been up all night wondering and worrying about what was going to happen if I’d known before.

“It was the best way when you’re as young as that to be thrown straight in.

“It was a great game to play in. Then I scored in my home debut the Saturday after (against Blackpool).

“It was brilliant and just set me off and running.”

Ironically it was Peter Thorne, later to become a firm favourite at Valley Parade, who spoiled his winning start with a last-minute Stoke equaliser.

Clarke added: “I don’t think he was my man (to mark)! But I played against Peter a couple of times because he moved to Cardiff that season as well.

“The experience of the players I was with and up against was a brilliant learning curve for me.

“It’s changed so much in football now. You can’t really say too much to young lads nowadays without them getting the lip out.

“It was different ‘back in those days’. But you do learn quickly that while you’re doing it for the love of football, it’s also your job.

“It affects families and wives and girlfriends. You’re playing to do as well as you can for them as much as how much you enjoy the game.

“Having children now, you realise why those 30-somethings were screaming and shouting at you when you were 18. It’s your livelihood.”

The week before Clarke made his first steps in senior football, Burke had celebrated his fifth birthday.

It’s something the senior partner is not too keen to be reminded about.

“I try to keep my age to myself if I can,” he laughed. “I won’t be mentioning it to him but I still feel really fit and healthy.

“I see Reece coming through now and can relate to that 100 per cent.

“You can play all the under-21 games in the world but it’s when you get thrown in at the deep end and how you react.

“It’s about how you take that chance and he’s certainly done that. He’ll come out of this season a million times better than just playing 50-60 games in the under-21s.

“You’re playing against older guys who are going to try and knock you about. Even in training playing against Hans (James Hanson), he’ll realise that.

“You come up against so many different types of players in first-team football.

“No disrespect to the under-21s, I think it’s a fantastic way through, but if you can get that chance to come out on loan like Reece has done then you’ll benefit a lot more from that.”

Clarke’s experience will be crucial over the final nine games as City scramble to make the cut for the top six.

As well as making a ready-made replacement for the injured Rory McArdle, he has also seen it all before in a play-off race.

He has been to four finals, including three in a row, but is yet to play in a winning one. Injury kept him out of Huddersfield’s 2004 win over Mansfield in Cardiff and he was not involved in the 2012 Wembley success against Sheffield United.

Clarke had not been selected for the previous year’s 3-0 defeat to Peterborough at Old Trafford either.

But he did captain Leyton Orient in 2013 against Rotherham – where they let slip a two-goal half-time lead to lose on penalties.

Saturday’s defeat at Wigan saw City concede sixth spot to Barnsley on goal difference. But the manner of the display offered some encouragement for the nine games left.

Clarke believes they have to treat each of them now with a play-off mind-set.

He said: “Nerves are going to creep in because these are massive games with the play-offs coming up. You’ve got to be on your mettle for what they’re going to throw at you.

“It’s such an exciting way to go up but it’s obviously hugely disappointing if you’re on the other end of it. But you have to look forward to them.

“You’ve got to treat every game now as a play-off because you’re also coming up against teams struggling at the other end. It’s just as big for them.

“They are as tough as playing teams trying to push for the play-offs and promotion.

“The important thing is that we maintain the work we’ve been doing to get us in this position.

“You want to build up that rhythm from picking up wins to get in the play-offs. Do that and the mood in the camp will be buzzing.

“That’s something we’ll definitely be looking to do here.”