Preston North End U19s became EFL Youth Alliance league champions in style with a rampant 8-1 victory away at Port Vale.
The Lilywhites roared into a commanding lead in the first half with Aaron Bennett, Mikey O’Neill and Jacob Holland-Wilkinson all getting their names on the scoresheet and Jacob Slater getting his on there twice.
The Valiants pulled one back before Aaron Bennett scored two more in the second half to complete his hat-trick and Josh Seary rounded off the match with a goal in the final seconds.
It was an empathic way to secure a league title and will no doubt go down as the crown jewel in a magnificent campaign for the youth side, as they confirm their status as league champions with three matches still to play.
Nick Harrison made five changes to the side that won against Bolton Wanderers at the weekend with James Pradic, Dana Amaral, Joe Blanchard, Joe Rodwell-Grant and O’Neill all coming into the side.
Any nerves from North End would have considerably settled when after just two minutes they carved their opponents apart with a well-crafted move which Rodwell-Grant should have done better with.
When North End did finally take the lead on 17 minutes, it was a screamer. Bennett received the ball 25 yards out, took a touch to compose himself and then unleashed a rocket into the far corner, leaving the keeper with no chance.
In the following four minutes, the champions-elect tripled their lead as Slater found the net after a scuffed Holland-Wilkinson shot found him inside the area and after some great work from Blanchard, O’Neill was slid through, and he scored to make it 3-0.
The match then settled down for ten minutes before PNE scored another two goals in quick succession.
Slater headed home his second after a fantastic corner reached him at the back post and straight from kick-off, the ball went back to the Port Vale ‘keeper and as Holland-Wilkinson closed him down, his clearance up the field was blocked by the forward and flew into the back of his unguarded net.
The Lilywhites were ruthless in their pursuit of the league title. Perhaps they became a little too complacent briefly as they allowed the hosts to pull one back on 41 minutes with a low free-kick and right before half-time, ‘keeper James Pradic, who was having a faultless game up until that point, brought down an onrushing forward and conceded a penalty.
But the Wales under 17s goalkeeper redeemed himself with an outstanding double save, stopping the initial spot-kick before reacting in time to parry behind the rebound, meaning the half-time score was 5-1.
The failure to convert the penalty seemed to kill off any Port Vale hopes of a miraculous comeback and after the interval, PNE set about adding to their tally.
It almost came immediately when the irrepressible Bennett tried an audacious shot from the half-way line straight from kick off which smashed off the crossbar.
But he wasn’t to be denied for long as on 64 minutes, the ball fell to him on the edge of the area, and he met it with the sweetest of volleys that almost broke the net on its way in.
Minutes before that, Harry Nevin and Noah Mawene had entered the fray in place of Kian Taylor and Rodwell-Grant.
Vaughn Green then replaced Holland-Wilkinson on 71 minutes and six minutes Levi Lewis came on for O’Neill in North End’s final substitution of the afternoon.
In between those two changes, Bennett had completed his hat-trick with an effort from the edge of the area, making the score 7-1.
That looked like being the final scoreline but with the last kick of the match, Seary slammed a strike home at the near post after being slid through by Green.
Nick Harrison was delighted at how his side had wrapped up the league with such a dominant display.
“I thought they were outstanding today, to score eight goals away from home at any level is brilliant,” he said to PNE.Com after the game.
“There were probably a lot of nerves before the game because the players knew they needed to win to win the league.
“I thought they played with a lot of freedom, they were trying things but most of all working hard for each other and that’s why they won the game and the league.”
Speaking on the league title achievement, he said: “Every credit to the players they’ve really deserved it, they’ve had an outstanding season and they’ve capped it off in the right way.”
It was a particularly joyous afternoon for Mikey O’Neill who captained the side just three days after making his first senior appearance against QPR, aged just 17.
“What a great few days for him,” said Harrison. “Making his senior debut and obviously he’s gone on and won the league today. It’s something that he’s deserved and we’re all really pleased for him and hope that’s the first of many to come.”
Harrison is now looked ahead to the upcoming Youth Alliance Cup final against Luton Town and the opportunity for his side to seal an impressive double.
“We want the boys to keep going, playing well, scoring goals and not conceding many goals along the way.
“Let’s see where we are when it comes to the cup final but any game the players play in, first and foremost we want them to play well and win the game. We’ll keep challenging to do that.”
PNE line-up: Pradic, Wallbank, Slater, Amaral, Taylor (Nevin 61’), Blanchard, Slater, O’Neill (C) (Lewis 77’), Rodwell-Grant (Mawene 61’), Bennett, Holland-Wilkinson (Green 71’)
Subs not used: Lombard