The youth team had to settle for a point in their final North West Youth Alliance outing of 2017 as Fleetwood Town scored a stoppage time equaliser in a 3-3 draw at Poolfoot Farm.
North End’s youngsters controlled the first-half and were deservedly ahead at the interval thanks to a fine Adam O’Reilly strike, and Nick Harrison’s men looked on course for victory when Lewis Fensome volleyed in a second just before the hour.
But the hosts levelled matters within 15 minutes of that effort, as Ben Blackburn and Conor Finlayson both struck from inside the box. Ethan Walker put the Lilywhites back in front with ten minutes to go but Ryan Rydel’s stoppage time equaliser meant the spoils were shared.
Neither side could take control early on, with PNE ‘keeper Callum Lenton saving comfortably from a tame Jack Bishop effort while Oscar O’Neil dragged one just wide from outside the box shortly after.
O’Neil then headed straight at Fleetwood ‘keeper Billy Crellin from Tom Stead’s flick on at a corner and Lenton saw a low drive flash just wide of his bottom left hand post.
After around 20 minutes, the visitors dominated the remainder of the first-half. Walker drove PNE forward, coming inside from deep on the left and rushing into the box where he got the ball back from Alex Wood’s right-wing cross, and then turned away from a few defenders before his powerful strike was pushed away by Crellin.
There was plenty of sustained pressure from the Lilywhites in the final third with Fleetwood providing the occasional threat on the counter, Connor Finlayson heading wide from Rydel’s left-wing cross.
However, soon after in the 27th minute, North End made the breakthrough. The attack had again come down the left flank and as the ball came to Walker on the bounce on the box, he nudged it into O’Reilly’s path as he lashed it into the bottom left corner from just outside the box.
Fensome might have made it two just before the break when he shot just over from a corner but the visitors still took a deserved lead in at half-time.
The hosts rallied at the start of the second-half with two early chances falling for defender Dominic Kerrigan, who first shot straight at Lenton from distance before heading over from ten yards.
At the other end, Jack Baxter’s cutting pass played Wood into space down the right and Walker again met another of his crosses with a low strike as Crellin saved at the second attempt.
Baxter forced Crellin into an even better save moments later when he tipped an audacious long-range strike wide for a corner – but North End did double their lead from the resulting set piece.
Walker delivered towards the back post from the right where Fensome converted with a fantastic left-footed volley for his fifth goal on the season on 58 minutes.
The hosts responded well though and pulled one back in the 64th minute. A long range strike from right of centre rebounded off the left hand post into Blackburn’s path, who provided a composed finish from inside the box.
And in the 71st minute, Fleetwood were level. Substitute Greg McCaragher raced to the left byline and cut it back for Finlayson, who also finished coolly from around 10 yards out.
But PNE restored their lead in the 80th minute. Substitute Myles Mason combined well with Wood down the right, the latter’s low cross deflected into Walker’s path, who struck a half volley into the ground from just inside the box to score.
The Lilywhites then had to see out the game with ten men, as Harry Garstang was forced off injured with the visitors having already used all of their outfield substitutes.
North End defended valiantly in that time but couldn’t hold on for the three points. In the 94th minute, Rydel turned towards the edge of the box and fired into the top left corner.
That was almost the last kick of the game as the visitors had to settle for the draw, with youth team boss Harrison taking some positives from the display despite the late blow denying his side a win.
“We’re obviously delighted to have scored three goals and I think that’s a big positive, especially on the back of Tuesday’s game [against Tottenham Hotspur], where we created chances but weren’t clinical enough,” Harrison told PNE.com.
“I thought we had a slow start but got better as the game went on, especially in the first-half; we looked in control and thoroughly deserved to be in front at half-time.
“After that, I thought we created chances and looked dominant, but when we conceded the first goal, we just didn’t organise ourselves quickly enough defensively and just gave them opportunities to score goals which we should have dealt with better.
Harrison felt his players responded well from their last outing, a defeat to Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Youth Cup, but hoped they would learn from aspects of the draw with Fleetwood.
“I’m delighted that we scored three, but obviously, I wish we had scored more now because we did have other chances. I think if we score three goals, that should be enough to win a game.
“The biggest problem was when we were 2-1 up and then 3-2 up, the players didn’t manage the game well enough, which is something the players have got to learn to do a lot better.
“We asked the players to bounce back after Tuesday, which I thought they did – we should have won the game today but we drew it because we didn’t manage certain aspects of the game properly.
“There was only about 20 seconds to go when they scored their third goal and we just didn’t defend that properly. We could have dealt with a lot better than we did.”
PNE line-up: Lenton; Fensome, Stead (Mason, 72), Lyons, Campbell (Armer, 72); O’Neil, Baxter; Wood, O’Reilly (Smart, 50), Walker; Brannigan (Garstang, 59). Subs not used: Cottam.