Preston North End U19s returned to winning ways in the league with a 4-1 away win over Rochdale.
Mikey O’Neill grabbed a brace, one in each half, and Cole McGhee and Noah Mawene also added their names to the scoresheet with Rochdale’s consolation goal coming seven minutes from the end.
The young Lilywhites will have been relieved to get three points on the board after a 1-0 defeat at Port Vale in their last Youth Alliance League outing.
In the time since then, they ran out 2-0 winners over Burnley in the Professional Development Cup and beat Wigan Athletic on penalties in the Lancashire FA Professional Youth Cup.
There were five changes made to the side that played against the Latics with Tommy Davis replacing James Pradic in goal and Lewis Leigh, Ethan Eccleston, Noah Mawene, Mikey O’Neill and Dana Amaral coming in for Jacob Slater, Ellis Horan, Max Wilson, Finlay Cross-Adair and Kaedyn Kamara.
It was a congested first half with both sides being frustrated in their attempts to carve out chances.
The hosts had the first opportunity of the match after three minutes when a fast move up the pitch saw the Rochdale forward in space on the right, but he dragged his shot wide.
North End’s first chance came on 19 minutes when Kian Taylor received the ball on the edge of the area and hit a volley on the swivel which grazed the roof of the net.
The Lilywhites managed to take a hard-earned lead eight minutes before half-time when Rio Pemberton sent in a cross from the left and O’Neill rose highest to glance the header home.
Right before the break, PNE had two opportunities to extend their lead in quick succession when Eccleston’s looping volley was tipped behind by the Rochdale goalie and moments later, he was called into action again with a reflex save from Taylor’s powerful header.
During the interval, Kamara was brought on to play in midfield in place of Theo Mawene, whose brother moved back to play in an unfamiliar centre-back position.
Ten minutes into the second half, North End doubled their advantage with Pemberton the architect once again as his cross from the right was met at the back post with a well-executed volley from McGhee.
In the 62nd minute, it was nearly 3-0 when O’Neill raced onto Kamara’s through ball and poked a slow shot through the keeper which looked to be trickling over the line before a Rochdale defender managed to clear it just in time.
But there was no denying the forward 19 minutes later when he was again played through and this time made no mistake, calmly slotting his shot into the bottom corner.
Having made it three, North End perhaps took their foot off the gas a little as they conceded just two minutes later.
A floated cross from the left was met at the back post by the Rochdale forward and Taylor was judged to have cleared it away after it had crossed the line.
Immediately after Rochdale’s goal, Finlay Wallbank replaced Eccleston to sure up the defence and in the dying embers, N. Mawene put the outcome beyond any doubt, latching onto Kitt Nelson’s pass and bursting through before burying his shot.
It had been a much more hard-fought victory than the eventual scoreline implied and coach Andy Fensome was pleased with his players.
“It was a scrappy game,” he said, speaking to PNE.Com after the match.
“But at the same time, I think we showed the quality, especially on some of the finishes, to win the game.
“The second half we had enough chances to score more goals, the bits of quality in the game came from us and in the second half particularly, I think our quality shone through.”
Fensome wasn’t surprised by how tough the hosts made it for his side and said they had prepared the players for a difficult contest.
He said: “When you come to Rochdale, they’re always going to be a team that works hard, they bully you a little bit and put you under pressure.
“That’s what I thought they did first half but you’ve got to roll your sleeves up sometimes because not everything is pretty.
“We originally told the lads that they’re going to have have to dig in, to fight and I thought they did that really well.”
PNE line-up: Davis, T. Mawene (Kamara 45'), Pemberton, Leigh (C), Taylor, McGhee, Eccleston (Wallbank 84’), Amaral, O’Neill, N. Mawene, Nelson
Subs not used: Wood, Horan, Wilkinson