Walsall scored in both halves to condemn a youthful Preston North End U18 side to a 2-0 defeat at Birmingham County FA HQ.
Dylan Parker opened the scoring after 16 minutes and Ethan Freemantle added a second for the hosts midway through the second-half, before the Lilywhites were reduced to ten men following Louis Potts’ late dismissal.
It would prove a challenging first-half for North End, who started with six first-year scholars and two U16s, but they were unfortunate early on as Jack Baxter twice sent Ethan Walker free down the left but the young attacker was called back for offside on both occasions.
Myles Mason was also frustrated by the linesman’s flag after Josh Pollard headed Jack Armer’s pass into space for the striker, who was heading into space in the area.
But after a couple of dangerous attacks, the hosts capitalised on their first clear-cut opportunity with just over a quarter of an hour played. Dan O’Sullivan threaded a fine pass into the box for Parker, who raced into the inside left position and slotted in at the near post with a first-time finish.
The Lilywhites almost equalised in the next minute when goalkeeper Brandon Ganley failed to deal with Armer’s free-kick into box, but Mason’s lobbed effort was hacked off the line.
Walsall continued to enjoy most of the possession but did not hit the target again for the remainder of the half, PNE ‘keeper Callum Lenton’s most difficult task a low save from Mitchell Candlin’s cross.
Jack Baxter had a thunderous effort for North End towards the end of the half as he dug himself out of a tight area and unleashed at goal from distance, but Ganley managed to hold on, while Parker and Stefan Mason dragged shots wide at the other end in time added on.
O’Sullivan provided the main threat for the hosts in the moments after the interval as he curled one free-kick over and another straight at Lenton, who also made a low save from another of the midfielder’s efforts, while Lewis Simmons hooked over from the edge of the box at the other end.
North End showed plenty of intent going forward in the second-half but were derailed by Walsall’s second goal after 67 minutes.
Ben Friel won the ball back in midfield and picked out Freemantle wide left, who cut inside and shot low into the left corner to score from just inside the box.
The visitors had more possession in the final stages of the game and might have pulled a goal back in the 81st minute when Ganley palmed Simmons’ right-wing cross straight to Pollard, whose strike on the bounce proved to be North End’s second effort of the game which was cleared off the line.
Second-half substitute Potts was shown a straight red card with three minutes of normal time remaining for a late challenge on a Walsall defender, the hosts seeing out the game for a 2-0 win.
Youth team manager Nick Harrison felt his team would have fared better had they adapted their style to counter playing on a difficult pitch against an experienced side at U18 level.
“It wasn’t a pretty game and the pitch wasn’t in a great condition to go and play football,” Harrison told PNE.com. “The pitch didn’t allow us to pass the ball, but the players put themselves under pressure by trying to over play.
“We didn’t cope for the first 15 minutes or so but I thought that was down to the slope of the pitch, they were playing downhill and we didn’t cope with that. The first goal comes from us trying to over play when we needed to get into their half and pass the ball a bit longer.
“We do want to get the ball down and play, but the players need to learn that, at the next level, there are games when you can’t play all the time and pass the ball short and sometimes you have to ask questions of the opposition in different ways.”
Harrison did not question the application of his players but said they needed to learn about dealing with the physical aspects of the game.
“It was disappointing in terms of the performance and the result but a good game for the players to learn from, especially the younger ones.
“For as much as we’re disappointed, I thought our players gave it a good go. We responded well after the first goal and had a couple of chances inside the box and I thought we were maybe unlucky not to get a penalty in the first-half.
“I don’t think we were too well beaten but when in the key moments, we tended to pass the ball short instead of long or just didn’t get our positioning in relation to the ball right when we lost it.
“I felt we played very much like an academy team and made those poor decisions whereas with Walsall, who had quite a few second-years in their starting line-up compared to our three, you could tell that they had played U18 football and knew how to play the game in the right way
“Their players were more physical, but our players have to cope with that and play against that if they want to train and play at first team level. They’ve got to do more in that sense, whether that’s in the gym or getting used to play against that type of player.”
PNE line-up: Lenton; Ngongo (Earl, 72), Day, Armer, Campbell; Pollard, Baxter; Simmons, Dolan (Nolan, 72), Walker (Jolly, 60); Mason (Potts, 60). Subs not used: Cottam.