Preston North End U18 were beaten by a tight 1-0 margin on the road at Walsall in the North West Youth Alliance league.
The solitary goal was scored in the first half when midfielder Kyle Sharp was played in and slotted the ball into the net.
Oliver Lombard’s penalty save after the break maintained the youth side’s hope of getting something from the game, but they ultimately returned home empty-handed.
There was just the one change from last weekend’s victory against Rochdale, as Joe Rodwell-Grant came into the line-up in place of Josh Seary.
The opening stages were well contested with neither side managing to gain a foothold. The hosts were the first to cause trouble in the opposition’s box, with a volleyed cross from the left going all the way across the face of the PNE goal.
Walsall took the lead with 16 minutes on the clock. Ronan Maher was deemed not to have committed a foul in the build-up, and he played his teammate through with a pinpoint pass, from where Sharp did the rest.
North End were winning several free kicks and had two in quick succession as they looked to respond to the goal. The second caused the most danger when Lewis Leigh swung it to the back post, but no one could convert in the midst of a number of bodies.
The best move of the game so far came very close to drawing the game level. Lewis Coulton played Leigh in over the top and he cut back in and switched the ball to Ben Dooley on the right wing. A first-time delivery picked out Rodwell-Grant who could only find the goalkeeper with his free header.
It looked as though Rodwell-Grant would have another good chance to score when Jacob Holland-Wilkinson picked up on a loose pass and played him through, but the defender recovered just in time to intercept.
The home side continued to commit fouls around their 18-yard box before and after the break. Leigh’s two efforts prior to half-time were blocked by the wall, whilst his one after the restart was on target but saved by Lewis Walker.
He tried from open play to slot Holland-Wilkinson in shortly after, but the striker couldn’t quite bring the ball under his control in the box.
It was Rodwell-Grant’s turn to play his strike partner in next and this time Holland-Wilkinson did control it, but his effort from a good position wasn’t hit hard enough to worry Walker in the Walsall goal.
The first substitution for PNE was made just past the hour mark – Dana Amaral came on for Dooley.
The home side were awarded their penalty for a handball. Jayden Campbell stepped up to take it and Lombard guessed correctly, diving to his left and claiming the ball.
They had another golden chance to extend their advantage when a cross from the right found Maher at the back post, but he headed wide from a couple of yards out.
A second change saw Vaughn Green replace Coulton at left back, and a third soon after had Harry Huddart making way for Mikey O’Neil.
Rodwell-Grant was presented with another chance to head home an equaliser, but he again headed straight at the ‘keeper.
The fourth and final change for North End was Teddy Mfuni replacing Leigh.
One last free kick was put into the box and found Joe Blanchard’s head, but his effort went wide as the referee blew the whistle for full-time.
Academy manager Nick Harrison felt his side dealt well with a difficult challenge but were undone by not taking their chances.
“First and foremost, it’s a tricky, tricky game,” he said. “In terms of distance to travel, the boys have been up since early in the morning, so it’s always a tricky one, but that’s certainly not being used as an excuse.
“The pitch, probably like a lot of pitches at this stage of the season, was rock hard and really uneven so it was difficult to play. Although I thought the players gave it a go from that perspective.
“They [Walsall] gave away 22 fouls in the game so I suppose they showed aggression, but I thought we battled well. When we passed the ball, we beat their press and we played around them and got into some good areas. We just didn’t have it in the final third today.”
The missed opportunities proved costly, as the youth side failed to score in a league game for only the third time this season.
Harrison continued: “We were unlike us. We were a little bit toothless in terms of when we created chances. We actually dominated the game, we had a lot more possession than the opposition, we had plenty of shots.
“I just don’t think that cutting edge was there, and that’s probably what’s more frustrating because that’s something that we’ve done really well all season.
“We’ve created lots of chances and scored lots of goals, but it just didn’t quite happen for us today.”
The U18 have their last game of the season next weekend, playing host to Tranmere Rovers, and Harrison is hoping to end the campaign on a better note.
“Obviously we had two games to go in the league this morning and certainly today is not the way we want to finish the season,” he said.
“We want to have good individual and a good team performance and we want to win because that’s what football is all about at the next level, so that’ll be the same message next week.
“We’ll put a lot of work into the players during the week and we want them to perform and get a positive result next Saturday.”
PNE U18 Line-Up: Lombard, Nicholson, Coulton (Green 67), Huddart (O'Neill 72), Nevin, Blanchard, Dooley (Amaral 61), Leigh (Muni 84), Rodwell-Grant, Mawene, Holland-Wilkinson.
Subs not used: Duggan