The youth team completed a stunning comeback to beat Oldham Athletic 6-2 and reach the final of the Lancashire FA Professional Youth Cup.
Max Norman’s first-half double set up a mountain of a task for North End’s youngsters as they trailed 2-0, but they more than rose to the challenge as Tyrhys Dolan and Ethan Walker scored a brace apiece, while Adam O’Reilly and Jack Baxter also struck in an emphatic victory.
There looked to be nothing in the game early on before Oldham took a tenth minute lead. Norman profited from a defensive lapse of concentration, controlling in the box and neatly poking into the bottom right corner.
PNE responded well but initially looked frustrated, Jerome Jolly, Dolan and O’Reilly all lashing shots wide in quick succession, while Chinedu Uche forced James Cottam into a comfortable save from outside the box.
Kamol Campbell burst forward on the half hour and nudged it to Walker, whose low effort trickled just wide of the far corner.
The Lilywhites were dealt another blow after 34 minutes as Oldham were awarded a penalty, after Cottam brought down Declan Baldwin in the box, and Norman coolly converted into the bottom right corner.
However, the Lilywhites rallied and pulled one back in the 40th minute. O’Reilly’s fine pass picked out Dolan’s run into the area and his first-time effort beat goalkeeper Ewan McFarlane, kickstarting the fightback.
The hosts’ wait for an equaliser lasted only minutes but it might have come sooner, as Dolan chipped a ball over the defence for Walker, his shot on the bounce drawing a fine save from McFarlane.
In the 43rd minute, though, North End were level. Lewis Simmons regained possession in midfield to send Walker free down the right, failing to pick out a man with two crosses, but the second was palmed towards Dolan, who nodded home from close range.
The Lilywhites carried their momentum through to the second-half and took the lead in the 50th minute. Baxter was first to the ball deep in the visitors’ half, laying it off for Walker to set off on a mazy run which culminated with a superb finish into the top right corner from the edge of the area.
There was a noticeable response from the visitors and they nearly clawed it back just before the hour as Frankie Antoine, embarking on a similarly mesmerising run inside from the right, saw his shot deflected onto the crossbar.
North End picked up again soon enough, though, with O’Reilly increasing the lead in the 69th minute. Walker surged inside from the left and although he was this time halted, Jolly was in position to pass through for O’Reilly, who rounded McFarlane to score.
Lewis McKinney went through on goal for the visitors less than ten minutes later, but his shot was deflected into the side netting.
PNE countered from the resulting corner and were awarded a 77th minute penalty, Baxter showing great composure to slot into the bottom right corner.
Dolan was then hindered by an unfortunate bobble before Walker completed the scoring four minutes from time.
Dolan lifted a ball over the defence for Walker to chase, dallying on the ball before unleashing a super strike into the same top right corner, rounding off a brilliant afternoon’s work.
Youth team manager Nick Harrison was enthused by his side’s display.
“It was a really exciting game, both teams went at it right from the start,” he told PNE.com. “It took us a bit of time to get going but from the back end of the first-half onwards, I thought we were outstanding.
“The resilience and character that the players showed to get back into the game was brilliant. We challenged them to go and get the next goal at half-time because we felt that would be important and once we did that, the quality shone through and the players finished the game really well.
“Certainly, the mentality of the players to keep going and keep believing to play the game, pass the ball and have that movement, showed great character from the lads. We’ve seen that throughout the season but without always getting that kind of the result.
“I’m delighted that it’s happened for the players today because they can take confidence and belief from that for the last two games of the season. It will give them that extra belief in what we’re asking them to do and that what they’re doing is working.”
Harrison praised U16 players Tyrhys Dolan and Ethan Walker, who scored two goals apiece in the game to help North End to victory.
“They’re young players –schoolboys. Ethan sat his first GCSE exam this morning and then came to the game and Tyrhys also went to school this morning.
“They’re young lads and they’ve shown what they’re capable of and although they have missed chances in other games, the pleasing thing is they’ve always kept going and got into good positions.
“We really believe in all of the players. They’ve shown what they can do today, but they could’ve done that all season to the majority of the teams we’ve played against, and that’s maybe a challenge for the players for next year, but they should be looking forward to the final two games already.”
Harrison also provided some early thoughts on facing Wigan in the final.
“Wigan have been outstanding this season – they know how to win games, they’re very competitive and are challenging to win the league.
“It’s going to be a tough game but we have beaten them during the season so hopefully we can do that again.
“If the players can perform like they have today and show that clinical touch in the box, I think we can beat any team.”
PNE line-up: Cottam; Day, Fensome, Armer (Earl, 57), Campbell; O’Reilly, Baxter; Simmons, Dolan, Jolly; Walker. Subs not used: Lenton, Ngongo, Pollard, Rodwell-Grant.