A 2-2 draw was not enough for Preston North End U18s away at Doncaster Rovers on Wednesday afternoon, as they exited the Youth Alliance Cup.
North End lost their first game in the competition 1-0 to Bolton Wanderers, and as a result, their solitary point from two games means they are out at the group stage, with only one team from each of the eight Northern groups progressing.
Rovers went into half-time one to the good thanks to a smart finish on the turn into the bottom corner.
Substitute Vaughn Green levelled midway through the second half, but the hosts regained the lead ten minutes from time.
A late screamer from fellow sub Aaron Bennett proved to be only a consolation, with the draw not enough for the Lilywhites.
Nick Harrison made two changes to the team that started Saturday’s crazy 5-5 draw with Port Vale, bringing in Harry Nevin for Teddy Mfuni and Noah Mawene for Bennett. His side were firmly on the front foot in the opening exchanges, with the first of many Lewis Leigh corners flicking up off a defender and falling to Nevin who headed straight at the 'keeper.
Captain Ben Dooley could well have given his side the lead within five minutes when he played a clever one-two with Mawene and found himself in the box, but he shot his effort straight at the ‘keeper.
Minutes later Leigh found Harry Huddart completely free at the back post from a corner, but the midfielder’s touch was heavy and the ball bounced up for him to tamely head towards goal.
PNE came the closest they had so far to taking the lead on 18 minutes when Kyi Nicholson rattled the bar from the edge of the box after a Leigh corner had been headed out by a Rovers defender.
Soon after Nevin pulled off a great last-ditch tackle at the other end to intercept a pass across the box and prevent a shot.
He was unable to stop the Rovers frontline halfway through the first half though, as a long ball over the top caused confusion amongst the PNE defence, and the ball was squared to the number 10 who fired low to the left on the turn to make it 1-0.
The goal turned the game on its head and Oliver Lombard was forced into a smart save with his legs to deny the number 10 a second low driven goal.
The PNE ‘keeper produced another good stop when the hosts worked a free-kick to the edge of the box and sent a strike towards the top corner.
Rovers missed a glorious chance to double their lead when the goalscorer was fed through once more, but he could only shoot wide of the left post in the box.
After the restart it was the home side’s turn to hit the woodwork; they worked the ball well across the pitch from right to left and a forward curled a lovely right-footed strike onto the bar.
Harrison made the first change of the game 10 minutes into the second half with Green coming on for Nicholson.
Doncaster continued to push for a second goal and nearly found it when a throw into the box was brought down nicely and squared, but Lombard was equal to the low shot with his legs once more.
Green then gave PNE hope when Mawene won the ball back in the final third with a great sliding tackle, before Dooley played the ball wide to right back Josh Seary who fed the substitute in the box, and he took one touch before firing in off the bar.
Three more substitutions were made by PNE as they searched for a winner, with Bennett, Dana Amaral and Mfuni replacing Mikey O’Neil, Huddart and Seary.
It was the hosts who went back in front though when an attacker latched on to another over the top through ball and worked his way into the box from a tight angle, from where he scored from close range.
Bennett made it 2-2 with a minute of normal time left, receiving the ball short from Leigh at a corner, skipping past the defender onto his right foot and blasting a shot from outside the box into the top right corner.
Doncaster had a golden opportunity to snatch the win in injury time, but their attacker couldn’t quite connect with a cross-come-shot that then rolled narrowly wide.
Academy manager Harrison was conscious that his side needed to make the most of their early domination.
“I thought we started the game really well and it probably took a couple of mistakes that led to their first goal that kind of put us on the back foot,” he told PNE.com.
“After that for 20 or so minutes we struggled and couldn’t get to grips with the game, and I think if we’d scored in the first 15/20 minutes when we were on top, the game would’ve been a lot different.
“Goals do change games and that was certainly the case on Wednesday; you’ve got to convert the chances you get.
“If you look at the two goals we’ve conceded they’ve come from two mistakes, so that’s something we’ve got to eradicate from the group so that we get more successes in games.”
With second year forwards Joe Rodwell-Grant and Jacob Holland-Wilkinson both out on work experience, opportunities have been plentiful for the younger attackers in the group, with Bennett scoring his fourth in two games and Green netting his first competitive PNE U18 goal.
Harrison added: “I think it’s a positive all round – Joe and Jacob have got the opportunity to play against men which is the next level for them, and it’s also allowed other younger players to take a step up and feature more.
“We’ve got a number of U16s playing which is great and a number of first years who are getting a chance as well.”
The manager was also quick to emphasise the focus on the whole team contributing to the defensive side of the game.
“There certainly isn’t an issue with scoring, but we’ve conceded as many as we’ve scored in the last two and that’s something as whole group we’ve got to be better at.
“Everybody can influence the game so we want the strikers to win the ball high so it takes the pressure off the defence.
“If we take our chances early it changes the game, but also we can’t allow the opportunities to score through schoolboy errors, which I felt was the case in this game.”
PNE U18 line-up: Lombard; Seary (Mfuni), Nevin, Blanchard, Lewis; Huddart (Bennett), Dooley; Nicholson (Green), Mawene, Leigh; O'Neil (Amaral). Subs not used: Duggan.