Preston North End U18s progressed to the semi-finals of the Lancashire FA Professional Youth Cup with a 0-2 win against Fleetwood Town on Wednesday afternoon.
Second-half goals from Tom Barry and Ki Smart earned the win for young Lilywhites at Poolfoot Farm as Nick Harrison started with the same team that defeated Shrewsbury Town in the previous outing.
The academy manager saw his players make a good start to the game after a competitive opening.
Mike Howard nearly played Oscar O’Neil through on goal in the 11th minute but his cross from the left was slightly over hit, but PNE kept up the pressure and Tom Stead angled a header just wide of the post shortly after.
Fleetwood didn’t threaten the PNE goal until the 17th-minute when Liam Collings fired over from a free-kick before Dan Mooney was halted by Precieux Ngongo’s inch perfect tackle inside the box six minutes later.
Mooney went close again not long after, hitting the side netting from close-range after a corner, while North End captain Melle Meulensteen forced Fleetwood ‘keeper Billy Crellin to tip his vicious strike around the corner from just outside the area.
Josh Earl found Howard in space minutes before the break as Fleetwood cleared, while Collings fired another shot wide for the home side as the whistle blew for half time.
After few clear chances in the first half, the second half looked likely to follow a similar pattern.
However, Barry brought the game to life just before the hour. The forward looked like he’d scored when he connected with Leon Creech’s right-wing cross, only for his for his header to be tipped over for the bar, but the PNE number nine responded perfectly by glancing a looping header into the bottom left corner from the resulting corner.
Barry held the ball up well and crossed towards Howard minutes later before he was replaced by Akwasi Kwateng, who made a huge impact from the bench once again.
After assisting Barry’s header just five minutes before, Meulensteen nearly got on the scoresheet himself when he curled a first-time shot marginally wide from the edge of the box.
North End had to remain alert at the back, though, as Collings fired against the post for the home team with 20 minutes remaining, and Earl cleared off the line from a Fleetwood corner only a few minutes later.
However, the Lilywhites were rewarded for their stubbornness at the back when they doubled their lead shortly afterwards. Kwateng was fed by Earl on the left as he burst past several defenders into the area, with Smart converting his low cross with a simple finish at the back post.
The visitors might have extended their lead late on, with Earl and Howard heading over from a series of crosses in the closing moments, but the game ended with a 0-2 scoreline.
Harrison, the academy boss, was pleased to see his team progress to the last four of the competition. He said: “Obviously it’s brilliant to get through to the semi-finals.
“We were delighted to win the game and I thought overall, especially in the second half, the performance was good as well. We had a little bit of a shaky start in the first half, although we did have a couple of chances, but I thought we grew into the game and got better as it went on.”
“I thought it was scrappy in the first half; both teams attacked and had chances, but we’ve gone in at half time at 0-0.”
On the improvement in the second-half, Harrison continued: “We just asked the players to be a little bit more structured by playing from the shape that we put out, defend better out of possession, work a little bit harder and then when we got the ball to show a bit more quality.
“We passed it better, moved it quicker and we created some good chances. It was quite similar to the game against Shrewsbury and it could have been three or four nil at the end.”
And after fielding the same 11 that triumphed in that Shrewsbury clash last time out, Harrison believed his players merited their continued involvement in this game. He added: “We kept it the same because we thought the players deserved that from Saturday, and that shows all of the group that if they’re doing well, you could keep your shirt.
“I’m sure there will be changes throughout the next few games because we have players who need to play after they’ve been injured, but it’s important that they know that when they work hard and do well they could get a starting place in the team.”
The win continued the Lilywhites’ fantastic recent away form, with this their third consecutive success on the road, and Harrison praised his side for achieving that feat. He said: “It shows that we’ve got character.
“We’ve had the character throughout the season to come back from a goal down or to draw a game. The players need to learn how to win games as well, though, and I think they’ve been doing that really well recently.”