Preston North End U19s reached the Youth Alliance Cup final with a 4-1 comeback victory over Bolton Wanderers at Springfields.
A well-taken Mitchell Henry goal gave the Trotters a half-time lead before PNE blew their opponents away in the second half and recorded a comfortable win in the end with strikes from Vaughn Green, Finlay Cross-Adair and an Aaron Bennett brace.
Before the flurry of goals in the final half an hour however, it had looked like it just wouldn’t be the Lilywhites’ day, with Mikey O’Neill missing a first-half penalty and Teddy Mfuni, Noah Mawene and Lewis Leigh all being forced off with injury.
There was just one change made to the team that knocked Burton Albion out in the northern semi-final of the competition on Tuesday as Dana Amaral came in for Green.
North End almost made the dream start to the match when O’Neill got a yard of space on the edge of the area, but his shot was well-saved by the Bolton goalkeeper in the first minute of the game.
O’Neill then had another good chance moments later when his header struck the post.
Despite a positive start from Nick Harrison’s side, it was the visitors who struck the first blow when diminutive forward Henry surged through the North End backline and slotted past James Pradic.
After that, Wanderers seized control of the match for the next ten minutes and looked the most likely to strike again.
But a PNE counter attack saw them win a corner, during which Mfuni was wrestled to the ground and his side were awarded a penalty.
However, they were dealt a double misfortune as Mfuni was forced off with a head injury and O’Neill saw his penalty saved.
Just before half-time, Mawene’s match also came to an end as he was brought down, injuring his ankle, and the Lilywhites ended the half a goal behind.
They could have hardly believed their bad luck when, eight minutes into the second period, Leigh was nudged over and landed awkwardly, and as a result had to be stretchered off.
It was a much-changed team that entered the final 35 minutes of the match with Finlay Wallbank, Green and Cross-Adair replacing their injured teammates.
But it was clearly a fired-up side and Bolton were struggling to deal with North End’s intense press.
It was that intensity that earned them an equaliser on 61 minutes, when O’Neill tackled an opposition defender which allowed Bennett in to tuck the ball past the Bolton ‘keeper.
Four minutes later, PNE had completely flipped the tie around as Green poked home at the back post from a corner.
Having taken the lead, Nick Harrison’s side still didn’t let up and O’Neill had two more good opportunities to score in the following seven minutes after Green’s strike.
On 79 minutes, Bennett made it 3-1 with a fantastic strike from the edge of the area that went in via the post and Cross-Adair also got his name on the scoresheet moments later with a looping header from a delightful Josh Seary cross.
The final whistle blew not long after, confirming PNE’s place in the Youth Alliance Cup national final after a magnificent second-half turnaround.
“I thought the overall performance was outstanding,” Nick Harrison said to PNE.Com.
“Even when we were 1-0 down, I was comfortable in feeling that we would get chances and every credit to the players because they stuck to what we asked of them and then showed that little bit of quality to score the goals in the second half.”
He thought it was very harsh on his players going in at half-time 1-0 down, as he felt they’d done enough to be comfortably ahead themselves.
“I thought we actually dominated the first parts of the first half,” he said.
“We could have been 3-0 up at one point. We hit the post, had a penalty and Mikey didn’t take a chance in the first two minutes.
“The players went about their business in the right way in terms of passing the ball and working hard when we didn’t have the ball.
“That’s exactly how we want the players to play and I felt we did that all game.”
Harrison was also full of praise for the mental resilience his side showed, comparing it to Tuesday’s turnaround against Burton.
He said: “We saw it on Tuesday. We went 1-0 down against Burton and the players had the belief to keep going and they do that together.
“We’ve got really good individuals, but individuals don’t win games on their own.
“They didn’t give up and obviously when we got back into the game with the first goal, they wanted to get the next one and the next one after that. The mentality of the players was excellent.”
PNE can now look ahead to a final against Luton Town, but Harrison is keen for his players to remain focused as they also have a title race to contend with.
“We had a chat with the players and congratulated them in the changing room and they’re already looking forward to the final," he added.
“However, we’ve got a lot more training sessions, a lot more games to come before then so we’ll just keep working.”
PNE line-up: Pradic, Mfuni (Wallbank 38’), Slater, Leigh (Cross-Adair 53’), Nevin (C), Best, Seary, Amaral, O’Neill, Mawene (Green 45’), Bennett
Subs not used: Wood, Lewis