The youth team’s seven-match unbeaten run came to an end with a 2-1 defeat at Rochdale on Saturday morning.
Two goals in three first-half minutes from the home side made it a difficult task for the Lilywhites and although Josh Earl pulled one back after the break, Nick Harrison’s men couldn’t draw level.
Both sides started positively as North End ‘keeper Callum Roberts was forced to gather from a dangerous cross while Ki Smart tested Rochdale goalkeeper Bradley Wade with a stinging effort from just outside the box within the first ten minutes.
Mike Howard had an opportunity to score closer to goal after 15 minutes from Tom Barry’s pass, but the attacker’s curling shot was well caught.
And just as it looked like North End were starting to find their rhythm, Rochdale were awarded a penalty in the 20th minute for a debatable handball decision. Matty Gillam slotted the spot-kick down the middle to put his team ahead.
Rochdale then netted a second just three minutes afterwards with Gillam involved again, as Joe Piggott met his left-wing cross to double the advantage.
Jack Stewart of the home side put a header wide and a long-range effort over but North End soon came back into the game, with crosses from Howard and Dylan Davidson on either side narrowly evading the attackers towards the end of the half.
Jack Burgoyne had to come off with injury on the stroke of half-time and was replaced by Leon Creech, but North End continued to improve after the restart.
Roberts palmed away a Gillam header soon after the break but the Lilywhites went into the ascendancy thereafter as Akwasi Kwateng powered towards goal but couldn’t find Barry with his pass.
That duo were replaced by Myles Mason and Josh Earl just before the hour, with the latter making an especially positive impact. The substitute pairing combined almost immediately, with Mason just beaten to the ball by the goalkeeper from Earl’s headed flick-on.
And with just over 20 minutes left, the Lilywhites halved the deficit. Davidson’s cross from the left was well controlled by Earl in the area as he turned his defender and struck a fantastic effort into the far right corner.
Earl nearly doubled his tally soon after, curling a free-kick just wide.
And moments later, Smart showed great skill to beat his man inside the box as his shot was palmed across goal, with Mason’s header towards goal being saved from a resulting cross.
Meulensteen then replaced Howard with 15 minutes left and he almost set up Smart from a corner with just six minutes remaining, but the stand-in skipper had his header well saved at the far post.
Oscar O’Neil was shown a red card for dissent in the final seconds as the game ended in defeat for the young Lilywhites.
However, Harrison, the academy boss, remained relatively upbeat after the contest.
“I thought we started the game very well and for the first ten minutes or so, we really dominated and hurt them – especially down the sides where we were getting good balls in the box,” he said.
“When the penalty came, we just collapsed a little bit and started to make bad decisions on and off the ball and we just weren’t at it. In terms of the first half, we were disappointed that we didn’t carry on doing what we did for the first ten minutes because it was working.”
Despite the result, Harrison took some satisfaction from his side’s display. He added: “I thought we dominated the second half from the start until the end and obviously making the changes helped.
“Josh Earl came onto the pitch and made a massive impact and scored a great goal – so that’s brilliant for him but we need other players on the pitch to do that as well.
“The massive positive is the way we have performed in the second half and the first ten minutes of the first half – we did it right and looked at it.”
But the academy boss felt the team should have got something from the game. He said: “We should have equalised with a chance that has flashed across goal and one of the lads has missed the chance to shoot, so we should have drawn 2-2.
“We were certainly pleased with how the second half went, but we’ve said to the players that they have to play for 90 minutes rather than 60.
“The penalty decision looked harsh but I’ve seen it on the video and I think he leans into it, so maybe it gives the referee a problem and a decision to make.
“The lad has actually said he didn’t handball it but you’ve just got to deal with it. We were doing really well and the penalty shouldn’t have affected us as it did, so that’s something the lads have got to learn from.”
And Harrison has now challenged his players to go on another unbeaten run, saying: “I’ve said previously that the lads are capable of doing anything dependent on their mental state.
“It was brilliant that we went on a seven-game unbeaten run – but it should have been more. The lads have got enough potential as individuals and as a group to do really well.”