A youthful PNE U18 side were beaten 3-0 away at Carlisle United on Tuesday afternoon.
The team, which featured five U16 players from the start, fell behind shortly before half-time.
Carlisle added to their lead near the start and end of the second half in a game that offered valuable experience to new and returning faces.
There was a total of five changes from the weekend’s win at Salford. Teddy Mfuni, Kian Best, Jacob Slater, Kitt Nelson, and Finley Cross-Adair all came into the line-up.
An early chance was fashioned by Nelson, who slipped the ball into Jacob Holland-Wilkinson for a one-on-one. He attempted to flick it around goalkeeper Gabriel Breeze, but he was out quickly and saved the attempt.
Holland-Wilkinson was involved in a quick attacking move ten minutes later, this time turning provider to Aaron Bennett, who found space in the box and fired a shot that required a Breeze save once more.
At the other end, Oliver Lombard got down quickly to produce a strong save at his front post to stop Lewis Bell’s half volley.
The home side continued to grow into the game, and just past the half-hour mark, left back Max Kilsby forayed forward and put in a low delivery across the face of the goal, but no one was there to get on the end of it for the Blues.
North End went the closest either side had come to scoring after some good work by Vaughn Green won a free kick on the right. Bennett’s initial cross was cleared, but a ball back in found the head of Holland-Wilkinson, and his effort from a few yards out was palmed away well.
With five minutes to go to the break, Carlisle found the opener. Kilsby once again overlapped Bell, who slipped the ball into the box to him, and he found the back of the net with his left-footed shot.
Carlisle doubled their advantage soon after the restart as striker Sam Fishburn latched onto a through ball and drove into the box before finishing low.
The first change of the afternoon for North End saw U15 Kacper Pasiek replace Bennett.
As PNE looked to get back into the game, Ben Dooley burst forward from defensive midfield and showed good strength to carry the ball to the edge of the box, where he was fouled. Nelson delivered the free kick but it was headed away.
Shortly after he made way for Lewis Leigh, who had been sidelined in recent weeks.
The young Lilywhites continued in their attempts to reduce the deficit, with Slater swinging a ball into the box, but the Carlisle defence remained resolute.
The third substitution brought about the return of Harry Nevin in place of Cross-Adair. Nevin was gaining his first minutes of 2021 having picked up an injury late last year that kept him out for several months.
Fishburn added a third for the hosts and his second of the day when he finished from inside the box.
A final change for PNE saw Ellis Horan, also from the U15s, replace Mfuni for the final few minutes as the game drew to a close.
Academy manager Nick Harrison believes the game provided a beneficial insight into the next stage of the younger players' pathways.
“We do want players to win games because it’s important that they understand winning is important in football, so from that perspective it was a disappointing result, but it was a great opportunity for a number of players,” he said.
“I spoke to a couple of the younger ones after the game and they all commented on the intensity because their normal game programming is probably less intense, so obviously they can see that step-up, and that’s why it was a great opportunity.
“I thought they did really well. Apart from the goals we conceded I thought we competed and had parts of the game where we performed very well.
“We have some really young players and I think it would have been a great learning curve for them, and hopefully they will get plenty more opportunities at that level in the next few weeks before the season finishes.”
Another positive from the game for Harrison was the returns of Leigh and Nevin.
“We planned for this game [to be one] that we could get them some minutes and that’s really good to see them back on the pitch,” he added.
“We’ll hopefully step that up at the weekend and get them back to be available for 90 minutes.
“It’s a real massive, massive plus and I think throughout the game, the fact that we’ve had a number of younger players playing in the U18s, and those two players coming back from injury, apart from the result, it’s a really pleasing game.”
PNE U18 line-up: Lombard; Green, Mfuni (Horan, 86), Best, Slater; Dooley, Mawene; Cross-Adair (Nevin, 77), Bennett (Pasiek, 48), Nelson (Leigh, 61); Holland-Wilkinson.
Subs not used: Duggan.