The youth team were held to a goalless draw by a stubborn Grimsby Town side in their first Youth Alliance Cup game on Saturday afternoon.
North End’s youngsters dominated possession and the overall play, with some decent opportunities to win it in both halves, but were ultimately left frustrated by the defensively compact Mariners.
After a scrappy opening period in which neither side created a clear opening, the Lilywhites began to take control and saw plenty of the ball. There were only half chances to begin with, though, as Ki Smart squared it from Lewis Fensome’s headed flick-on, only for the visitors to clear off the line.
Tyrhys Dolan, an exciting U16 attacker who was making his first start at this level, had the hosts’ first meaningful effort on goal midway through the half. Having intercepted high up the pitch, his swept effort from outside the area was parried, with Darren Brannigan just unable to reach the rebound.
A few minutes later, Harry Garstang chested down and shot towards goal despite being surrounded by a number of defenders, although ‘keeper Ollie Battersby remained untroubled.
The home side continued to probe but struggled to break through, Jack Baxter’s sweetly struck volley six minutes from the break catching the eye but it was again comfortable for Battersby.
Dolan and Jack Armer provided some menacing crosses from the left flank with half-time approaching but their deliveries went unmet, the scoreline remaining unchanged at the break.
The Lilywhites came out strong after the interval and nearly took the lead just three minutes in when Armer delivered with his weaker right foot towards Smart, who attacked the right-hand post and forced an opposition defender to head against his own crossbar.
Shortly after, Baxter skimmed the crossbar with his first-time effort from 18 yards after a perfectly weighted layoff from Garstang.
Dolan and Brannigan both saw their efforts fly over after earning space for themselves well in the area, while Tom Stead tested Battersby with an effort from almost 30 yards.
North End continued to go close in the final stages, although the visitors enjoyed arguably their best period in the final 15 minutes, too. Rumarn Burnell headed over what was probably their best opportunity with a quarter of an hour remaining from Alex McMillan’s whipped right-wing cross.
However, the Lilywhites, too, threatened to grab what would have been a deserved winning goal in the dying minutes, as substitute Myles Mason headed wide at the back post from Baxter’s corner.
And in the first minute of stoppage time, having made one of few saves throughout the contest from Josh Walker just seconds before, Callum Roberts showcased his superb distribution by sending Mason through one-on-one with a ball over the defence.
The North End striker drew a fantastic save from Battersby before Brannigan then picked up on the loose ball and saw his goalbound effort deflected away for a corner.
The young Lilywhites couldn’t go one step further and find the winner, but youth team boss Nick Harrison remained pleased with his team’s performance and the test Grimsby provided for the players.
“We created some good chances against an opposition that dropped very deep and made it difficult for us, so it’s a good experience for our boys to come up against that,” Harrison told PNE.com. “I thought we found ways to penetrate them, we just didn’t show enough composure inside the box just to put it in the back of the net.
“Even in the first-half, we had a few chances where we just didn’t quite connect well enough with a shot, and sometimes you just need a bit of luck and I think that was maybe missing today.
“I thought putting the ball in the back of the net was missing, and really, I thought that was all that was missing from today’s game.”
Harrison explained that he could take plenty of positives from the game, including a second consecutive clean sheet and the persistence which the players showed in search of a goal.
“We asked the players to be patient, to keep playing and passing it. We couldn’t go in behind them because there wasn’t the space to do it, but the lads kept the ball well, kept probing and asking questions of them.
“It’s another clean sheet, so from a defensive point of view, we’re pleased with that, but we need players to take the chances as well because we’ve created the chances to win the game.
“Everything else was great in terms of the build-up play; the way that we passed it and played nearer to their box was very good. Overall, I’m pleased with the way we played and the performance, the players worked hard and did the right things but just couldn’t score the goal.”
The draw represents a point for North End in their first outing in the Youth Alliance Cup, with the young Lilywhites still to face Notts County, Accrington Stanley and Lincoln City in their group of five.
And Harrison remained optimistic about his side’s chances of progression.
“We’re in a group of five and it’s our first cup game in the group, we’ve still got three more games and we’ve just got to pick up more points in those games if we want to top the group.”
PNE line-up: Roberts; Day (Simmons, 83), Fensome, Stead, Armer; O’Reilly, Baxter; Smart (Campbell, 67), Garstang (Mason, 74), Dolan; Brannigan. Subs not used: Cottam, Pollard.