Preston North End U18s came out on top in a thriller at UCLan Sports Arena on Tuesday afternoon, beating Walsall 4-3 after trailing at half-time.
The Lilywhites scored delightful goals through Harry Garstang and Melle Meulensteen in the opening half-hour, sandwiched between a Mitchell Candlin equaliser, but the visitors netted twice in the latter stages of the half to lead at the break.
However, Meulensteen doubled his tally from the spot midway through the second period before Myles Mason came off the bench to win it with just over ten minutes remaining.
North End made the perfect start and went ahead inside 50 seconds, with Mike Howard’s intense pressing down the left flank allowing him to feed Garstang, who slotted into the bottom right corner one-on-one.
Although Garstang hit the target again with a long-range effort just minutes later, the hosts were almost immediately pegged back with a goal that also had an element of persistence about it.
Candlin met a Tobias Hayles-Docherty cross in the sixth minute and although Callum Roberts superbly stopped his initial effort, the forward managed to bundle the rebound just over the line.
Oscar O’Neil’s driven shot almost found Garstang after a quarter of an hour but drifted just wide, while Hayles-Docherty fired a volley over soon after at the other end.
Meulensteen was heavily involved approaching the end of the half, finding Charlie Lyons from a free-kick – with the Irishman’s header stinging the goalkeeper’s gloves – before the midfielder had a shot of his own from a free-kick saved at the second attempt.
The North End captain went one better in the 33rd minute to score with a stunning chip. After good build-up play by O’Neil and Garstang, Meulensteen clipped an effort over the ‘keeper from outside the area, nestling into the top left corner.
However, the visitors responded quickly once again. When Candlin tangled with Roberts in the box Walsall were awarded a 39th minute penalty which the striker tucked into the bottom right corner.
Just three minutes later, the Saddlers completed the turnaround as Hayles-Docherty’s strike from the right took a huge deflection to take it past Roberts and in.
After such a frantic opening 45 minutes, matters briefly settled after the interval, with Ethan Freemantle’s diving header and O’Neil’s strike from distance – both missing the target – the nearest either side came to scoring.
The Lilywhites upped the intensity in the latter stages of the half and were awarded a penalty as a reward in the 70th minute after a push on Howard. Meulensteen confidently dispatched it into the bottom right corner, notching his second of the afternoon.
Garstang might have doubled his individual tally shortly after as well, glancing a header just wide from a left-wing Meulensteen cross.
It was Myles Mason who completed the comeback after 79 minutes, making the most of Alex Wood’s parried effort from the right with a composed finish from close range.
Meulensteen nearly had his hattrick five minutes from time with a vicious effort from the edge of the box before the visitors threatened to equalise for a third time late on.
Second-half substitute Joseph Cairns struck marginally wide with minutes to go but PNE were forced to clear as it rebounded back into play.
Cairns went closer in stoppage-time by forcing Roberts into a low save from outside the box but the away side weren’t finished. After a scramble in the area, a Lilywhites clearance came straight at a Walsall attacker who headed it against the crossbar from minimal distance.
However, North End did enough to hold on for a deserved win, and academy manager Nick Harrison was pleased with the attacking football on show from his team.
“I felt from the start of the game, we played some good football and worked hard to get the first goal,” he said. “I thought the way that we pressed them early on was very good.
“It was just a positive start and that’s all we asked for – put them under pressure, be positive and get in the final third.
However, the youth team boss was slightly disappointed to concede three times.
“If a game is done in the right way, it shouldn’t finish 4-3. I felt that we did really well to get into the lead, but just disappointed in the way we didn’t control the game when we were in the lead.”
“We put them under a bit of pressure but then obviously it’s a little frustrating how we’ve defended for their goals.”
The youth team had kept four consecutive clean sheets prior to this victory but Harrison acknowledged the quality his side had shown to dig out a victory.
“It’s a great win but we’re disappointed that we couldn’t get another clean sheet, that was actually something that we challenged the players to do before the game.
“We felt that that was important, but if you’re not going to keep a clean sheet, you have to find a way to win the game. We spoke to the players at half-time when we were 2-3 down and said ‘what are you going to do to get something out of the game?’.
“I think they’ve shown great character to come from behind and get the equaliser at 3-3 and then get the winning goal.”
Roberts, Creech, Stead (Tait, 55), Lyons, Campbell (Mason, 55), Smart, O’Neil, Wood, Meulensteen, Howard, Garstang. Subs not used: Horton, Burgoyne, Barry.PNE line-up: