Youth team forward Mike Howard took plenty of positives from Tuesday’s Lancashire FA Senior Cup quarter-final tie, despite North End exiting the competition with a 2-1 defeat against Bury.
Howard was one of four academy scholars involved in the contest, completing 90 minutes alongside a plethora of first team players, while fellow U18s representatives Tom Stead, Jack Baxter and Adam O’Reilly also received game time.
Although the Lilywhites couldn’t get the desired result in the match, the 18-year-old felt the experience was a confident booster, both in terms of the on-pitch action and the post-match encouragement from manager Alex Neil.
“It was a different experience,” the winger told PNE.com. “The game is a lot faster [than playing for the youth team], but getting through the 90 minutes, without pulling up with cramp or anything, was a good feeling.
“I think not having an U23 squad gives the youth team players that chance to play in these reserve games. In a big game like today’s, having the three youth team players starting looks good for the academy.
“That has showed in the performances as well because we have been doing well recently. It just shows how we are working in training and shows we can compete at a higher level fitness-wise.
“He [Alex Neil] told me at the end of the game that I had worked my socks off, that I hadn’t stopped running and pressed down every ball and told me I had been a credit [to the team]. That’s great to hear from the first team manager, it gives you confidence.
“Hopefully now I can build on that with performances going forward and get more chances in reserve games, where hopefully the manager will be watching again as well.”
Howard, the youth team’s joint top scorer this term, himself and Harry Garstang having scored seven each thus far since the start of the campaign, added that it was important to learn from the first team players and apply their practices to aid their own development.
“You can pick up a lot from what the senior players are doing. I feel like you can pick up on what they’re doing and it can benefit your own game, so it’s about just learning what they’re doing and seeing how they can benefit your game.
“Everyone is fighting for a place, and it’s just about trying to do better than those players. It’s about trying to earn a shirt, because at the end of the day, you want to get into the first team because that’s the end goal; making a career out of the game.
“We had a few positional changes during the game and I was playing up front at one point. I thought I was linking up well with Ben Pringle and Josh Harrop at times, getting it wide and we got chances in the box from that.
“It’s another experience, and I think that’s what you need as a young player – the opportunity to play in the U23s, in a cup quarter final match like today and having that chance to prove yourself.”