Ethan Walker scored a hattrick as the youth team came from behind to beat Shrewsbury Town 3-2.
The first year scholar netted five minutes after the hosts had taken an early lead and twice within the opening ten minutes of the second half, meaning Archie Elmore’s reply for the hosts just over 20 minutes from time was no more than a consolation.
Salop made the brighter start as the lively Jamaine Turner blazed over Jimmy Corcoran’s crossbar inside two minutes, while Luke Ward headed over unmarked from James Rowland’s free-kick.
But after Corcoran had saved from Turner when he regained possession in a dangerous area, that same duo combined to give the hosts a 12th-minute lead.
It was another free-kick from Rowland which led to the opener and this time Ward made no mistake with his downward header finding the left corner.
That sprung North End into life though and they were level after 17 minutes. Darren Brannigan neatly laid it off for Josh Pollard whose forward pass was perfectly weighted for Walker to stride forward and find the far bottom corner.
Ryan Grosvenor placed wide from the edge of the box but the visitors began to take more of a foothold as Jack Baxter looked to dictate midfield, finding Brannigan with a clever pass, who couldn’t quite direct his header goalwards, and then firing an audacious shot not far over from distance.
Salop skipper Rowland fired a snapshot over the bar at the other end as Charlie Lyons and Jack Armer both made important interventions at the back late in the half as the scores remained level.
The Lilywhites turned the tables after the break as it was they who made the much quicker start to the second period and that paid dividends in the 48th minute, when Walker headed in ahead of Shrewsbury ‘keeper Cameron Gregory from a few yards out.
Just four minutes later, Walker was on the scoresheet again. Arguably the pick of his three successful finishes, the 16-year-old ran half the length of the left flank as he drove into the box and again struck low into the far corner to extend PNE’s winning margin.
Walker had another half chance moments later when he drilled just over from 20 yards while the hosts introduced Elmore and Jack Leask from the bench.
That double change soon helped to get Shrewsbury back into the game, but not before Tyler Williams had narrowly headed wide Jerome Jolly’s corner and Walker had yet another shot, this time tipped over by Gregory.
In the 67th minute, though, Salop reduced the lead as Kian Taylor slid Elmore into space and he side footed past Corcoran into the right hand corner.
The game threatened to swing in both directions as Lifumpa Mwandwe drew a decent stop from Corcoran and Pollard narrowly headed wide from Adam O’Reilly’s centre.
Mwandwe found himself in a good position again moments later but he could not divert Rowland’s cross in for an equaliser.
North End coped well with Salop’s pressure as Walker and O’Reilly each saw their shots clear Gregory’s crossbar from range.
The home side upped the ante in stoppage time but the Lilywhites remained firm with Jolly and Baxter both intervening to good effect inside North End’s own area as Nick Harrison’s side claimed a third consecutive win.
The Academy manager was impressed with how side raised their game in the second half.
“I thought it was a competitive game and we said to the players over the last few days that this would be a tough game for us,” Harrison told PNE.Com.
“We didn’t perform brilliantly in the first half and we had some words with the players at half-time, but I thought their reaction in the second half was spot on.
“Our goal in the first half comes from us passing the ball well and keeping it simple, we just didn’t do that enough, we were overcomplicating the game and not winning our second balls. In the second half, we did that much better and kept the ball better, we won the second balls and competed.
“At one point I thought we were going to run away with the game and we probably should’ve done; we had a chance for 4-1 just before they scored their second.
“I thought the players showed great mental strength, maybe not in the first half – we were way behind it in terms of our mentality – but second half, the way the boys started meant they thoroughly deserved to be in the lead and ultimately, we deserved to win the game.”
The youth team boss added that his players could learn plenty about game management from this contest as he also praised the efforts of hattrick hero Ethan Walker.
“Ethan’s done ever so well to score all of his goals and the two in the second half gave us some breathing space. At that point, we felt that we shifted the ball well enough to open the spaces and should’ve capitalised on that by scoring at least one more goal.
“But when it’s 3-1, Shrewsbury are still in the game and it was tough by the end, but a good challenge for the players to learn about managing the game and understanding how to play late in the game when you’re only winning by one.
“We know what Ethan can do; when he’s on the ball and runs at people, there’s not many players who can live with him. We will keep testing him and Ethan needs to do that on a regular basis if he wants to push onto the next level, that’s what we will continue challenging him to do."
PNE line-up: Corcoran; Simmons, Williams, Lyons, Armer; O’Reilly, Baxter; Jolly, Pollard, Walker; Brannigan (Potts, 82). Subs not used: Ngongo, Cottam, Earl, McManus.