The youth team suffered a 3-0 home defeat at the hands of North West Youth Alliance leaders Wigan Athletic in their first outing of 2018.
Charlie Jolley scored either side of the interval before Mwiya Malumo’s pressure forced a late own goal to seal the points for the Latics, ensuring a reverse of the scoreline from the corresponding fixture, when the Lilywhites were 3-0 winners at Christopher Park back in September.
Despite the visitors’ positive start, the first opportunity fell North End’s way, when Mike Howard dragged a close range shot wide of the near post after five minutes.
Wigan went in front in the 11th minute through their first real scoring chance. Joe Gelhardt’s silky run down the left culminated in a flighted cross to back the post, where Jolley headed home from just a few yards out.
James Cottam was kept busy in the PNE goal as he rushed off his line to deny Jolley another shot on goal, and then superbly tipped wide Joe Downey’s free-kick from the edge of the box.
Visiting ‘keeper Theo Roberts saw Harry Garstang’s long range strike wide just before the half hour, as the hosts began to see more of the ball.
Adam O’Reilly had a couple of half chances in the box before the break but was twice dispossessed close to goal following incisive passes from Kian Smart and then Ethan Walker.
The hosts continued to keep possession following the interval but were kept at bay by Wigan, who doubled their advantage in the 65th minute.
A ball over the top of the Lilywhites’ defence took a slight deflection on its way to Jolley, who kept his composure one on one against Cottam, finishing low for his second of the match.
Tom Stead got on the end of a few of Walker’s set piece deliveries, nodding over from a corner before his heading back across goal from a wide left free-kick, but it was cleared before a fellow Lilywhite could provide the finishing touch required.
PNE fought to pull a goal back, with Darren Brannigan and Myles Mason among the attacking options introduced from the bench late on.
However, the visitors remained a threat on the counter attack, too, and Cottam had to stay alert in goal right until the end.
The North End stopper tipped wide Malumo’s low strike two minutes from time, and Stead scrambled away the rebound before Jolley could prod home for his hattrick.
But the Latics managed to net a third in the first minute of stoppage time, when a cross came in from the right and Malumo applied the aerial pressure on the North End defence, leading to an unfortunate own goal into the bottom right corner from only a few yards out.
Brannigan connected well on his head with a Jack Armer cross deep into time added on but had his effort blocked, that the final act of a frustrating morning for the young Lilywhites.
Despite the result, Nick Harrison was happy to see his players in a competitive game, which he felt finished with a scoreline which was slightly harsh on the Lilywhites.
“I thought for our first game after the winter break, it was a really competitive game with two teams trying to win,” Harrison told PNE.com. “Wigan have obviously got some good players and play the game in the right way, but in reality, it wasn’t a 3-0 game.
“I said to Andy Fensome towards the end of the game that 0-0 would have probably been a fair reflection of the game, because from our point of view, their goals were avoidable.
“For the first game back, the fitness levels were very good, I don’t think that was the issue. I thought there were a couple of mistakes for some of their goals which were avoidable, so that’s something we will look at and work on.
“There weren’t many chances in the game, they took theirs when they came and I thought we had quite a number of chances which, if we had taken, especially in the first-half, we could have made it a different game.
“That can sometimes be the difference – what you do in both boxes – but I’m pleased with how the players played for the first game back. I thought they competed and tried to play in the right way.”
Harrison felt there was something lacking in PNE’s attack, but is confident his team – which has averaged more than two goals per game this term – will quickly put that right as they look ahead to a Youth Alliance Cup quarter-final tie away to Rotherham United next weekend.
“In the second-half, we didn’t show enough cutting edge, and their goals came from a ricochet allowing their striker to get through and the third goal is an own goal. If their second goal hadn’t have gone, it would have been a more interesting game, but it wasn’t to be.
“Hopefully, the players can learn from this game and take things on board going into the next game, which is a big one in the Youth Alliance Cup. Rotherham are doing well in their league, as we are, and they haven’t lost many games.
“It’s the quarter-finals and it’s a competition we want to progress in and are hoping to win, but we know it’s going to be a tough game.”
PNE line-up: Cottam; Fensome, Stead, Lyons (Armer, 73), Campbell; O’Neil (Brannigan, 56), O’Reilly; Smart, Garstang, Walker (Mason, 75); Howard (Day, 84). Subs not used: Lenton.