Oscar O’Neil’s 25-yard screamer helped Preston North End U18s to earn a battling point in a 1-1 draw away to North West Youth Alliance leaders Tranmere Rovers on Saturday.
The North End midfielder put the visitors ahead in superb style two minutes before the break and the visitors held onto their lead for most of the second-half, but Tranmere struck back with an impressive effort of their own after 77 minutes, Jake Burton equalising on the half volley.
Those two goals were made all the more impressive by the difficult conditions, with the strong winds impacting proceedings from the off.
But both teams created chances, the hosts going close six minutes in when James Ellison crossed for Carl Spellman – who had a particularly lively first-half – only for the midfielder to guide a volley just wide of the right-hand post at the back stick.
The Lilywhites went up the other end and were denied an early lead only by the post, as Mike Howard curled a free-kick towards goal from a tight angle on the left, and O’Neil then saw his rebound palmed wide by ‘keeper Patrick Wharton.
Lewis Fensome and James Cottam combined to thwart Spellman once again just over ten minutes later as the skipper blocked in the initial strike before the goalkeeper showed great reactions to tip the rebound around the post.
North End looked to be dealing with the conditions well, remaining patient while they controlled possession for large parts, but chances continued to fall for Tranmere’s Spellman, who this time shot into Cottam’s right-hand side netting.
But soon after, as a result of that persistence to keep the ball in the opponents’ half, the visitors took the lead in fantastic style in the 43rd minute. O’Neil received it in space 25 yards from goal, allowing him to shift it out his feet and unleash a piledriver into the bottom right corner of Wharton’s goal.
The visiting defence looked comfortable in the second-half as Cottam was only forced to deal with a few low through balls in the moments after the interval, before he denied Bailey Thompson with an excellent close range save with his legs 20 minutes after the restart.
But around ten minutes later and with a clean sheet looking increasingly likely for the Lilywhites, Tranmere pegged them back with a 77th minute equaliser. A corner was cleared only as far as Burton on the edge of the box and he hammered it into the top left corner with a powerful first-time strike.
The conditions continued to make it difficult for both teams but the Lilywhites certainly had the better of the final ten minutes or so, with substitutes Darren Brannigan, Tyrhys Dolan and the earlier arrival of Ethan Walker coming on to good effect.
Jack Baxter curled a long range free-kick wide and a slaloming Dolan run came to nothing in stoppage time for the visitors as the contest came to a close at 1-1.
Youth team manager Nick Harrison was pleased with the character shown by his players and suggested a draw was a fair result.
“It was a really difficult game and we knew that it would be against Tranmere,” Harrison told PNE.com. “Tranmere have got some really good players and they’ve done well in the league so far.
“The conditions were bad for both teams, so I think it was a really competitive game and that’s what we always get when we play Tranmere at any age. It was always going to be that type of game and our lads stood up to that.
“I thought it was a gritty performance, both teams worked hard and wanted to win, so maybe a draw was a fair result. We’re pleased with how the players the worked and the character they showed to keep going.”
Harrison was disappointed his side couldn’t hold on for victory but admitted that the two goals scored in the game were of a high quality, also reserving praise for O’Neil’s wonderful effort for PNE.
“We took a little bit of time to get into it and then we started to pass the ball a bit better in the first-half, we opened up some chances and it’s a great goal from Oscar O’Neil to go 1-0 up. I thought it was good play, we controlled the possession and got Oscar on the ball and then it’s a great strike.
“What the players have got to learn is that when you do go 1-0 up, you’ve got to find a way to try to see that out and that’s what disappointing about today’s game, that we couldn’t do that. The players showed some good character throughout the game to maybe go and win it but it was a good strike from the Tranmere player to get the equaliser.”
The youth team have lost only one of six away games this term Harrison said the qualities which have helped to build that record were on show once again in this game.
“I think you can see from today, it’s the character of the players and their attitude to keep going even when things are not working.
“For the first 25 or 30 minutes, some of the passing and our touches were off and we made some poor decisions, but then when we settled down and started to play and we got the goal
“Throughout the game, the players showed lots of character and grit and that’s what we can be pleased with today.”
PNE line-up: Cottam; Wood (Walker, 62), Fensome, Day, Campbell; O’Neil (Dolan, 89), Baxter; Smart, O’Reilly, Howard; Mason (Brannigan, 78). Subs not used: Jolly, Pollard.