Ryan Clarke trained with the senior squad for the first time yesterday and the Oxford United goalkeeper is targeting a return within a matter of weeks.

The 32-year-old has been on the sidelines since having surgery on a foot injury during the summer.

He is now in the process of going through what is effectively a personal pre-season to regain fitness and, while the club are reluctant to set a date for his return, the recovery is ahead of schedule.

Clarke is pleased to rejoin the rest of the squad, but admitted he would only be completely content once he is able to make a playing return.

He said: “I am happy to be back training, but at the end of the day I want to be playing every Saturday.

“It’s not a matter of being back fit and training, the main thing for me is I live and breathe and work hard to play on a Saturday.

“I don’t really want to let anyone stop me doing that unless someone’s in better form than me.

“We’re not at that bridge yet, but we will cross it when it comes to it.

“The main thing for me is to get more training under my belt and then I can maybe put my hand up and say I’m ready to go if needed.”

Clarke is well aware the injury means he has something to prove to Michael Appleton, who took over in July.

But United’s head coach, speaking before yesterday’s session, was delighted to have the experienced goalkeeper back to increase the competition with George Long and Max Crocombe.

He said: “It will be good to see the big fella back in and putting even more pressure on George and Max.”

Long, signed on loan from Sheffield United, has been the first-choice goalkeeper this season.

With no clean sheets so far, there have been calls from some quarters for United to play Crocombe, who saved two penalties in the shoot-out defeat at West Bromwich Albion in the Capital One Cup last month.

Clarke believes the competition can only be good for the club.

He said: “Longy’s got a good reputation and Max has come in and done well when he’s played.

“It’s easy for people to start pointing fingers at individuals when results aren’t going well, but they are both great young lads with bright futures.

“It’s down to me to come back and give them a push.”

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