Adam O’Reilly and Darren Brannigan were on target as the youth team beat Fleetwood Town 2-0 following a four-week absence from North West Youth Alliance league action.
The Cod Army were a point behind the Lilywhites in the league standings, having played a game less, prior to kick-off, but captain O’Reilly edged the home side in front midway through the first half with a well-controlled finish, Brannigan making sure of the three points seven minutes from time.
Nick Harrison’s team hadn’t played in any competition for more than a fortnight, their last game Bury’s visit to Deepdale in the FA Youth Cup, but there were only two changes from that night’s line-up as Brannigan and Jerome Jolly came into the starting fold.
The lack of competitive football in the interim maybe showed to start with for PNE, their high press enough to combat Fleetwood’s attempts to play out from the back, although they failed to forge much of an opening themselves going forward.
Barry Baggley proved Fleetwood’s main outlet in attack, his driven delivery towards the back post providing the first glimpse of goal for either side eleven minutes in, but it left Carl Johnston always stretching at the back post and unable to make a touch.
Ethan Walker blazed over the top right corner from Jolly’s cross moments later and it wasn’t until 20 minutes were played that North End began to wrestle back control of the game.
An eye-catching move down the right saw Lewis Earl turn on the halfway and pick out Tyrhys Dolan further down the line, he and Lewis Simmons linking up nicely and both crossing in from the right, with one cleared into the feet of Jack Baxter who struck just wide first time.
The Lilywhites soon made the breakthrough, however, O’Reilly finding the net with 24 minutes on the clock. Jolly had crossed invitingly for Brannigan and when his delivery was cleared into the sky, North End’s captain kept his cool and volleyed home from close range.
It remained a tight affair, although the home side’s confidence had been visibly boosted as they held onto their advantage until the break, but it was the visitors who made the stronger start to the second half.
Jimmy Corcoran intervened against Sam O’Halloran one-on-one to prevent him from shooting, while Simmons had a possible penalty shout denied at the other end when his dizzying run was halted by Jay Matete.
The Cod Army were unfortunate not to equalise on two occasions within the same minute, just before the hour, which saw Baggley twice strike the woodwork.
The Northern Irishman first controlled an O’Halloran cross with a turn away from a PNE defender and placing against the woodwork left-footed, achieving the same outcome barely 30 seconds later when he seemingly released his frustration with a venomous strike from 25 yards out.
Baggley then crossed for O’Halloran but Corcoran gathered well, although he could only palm Johnston’s curler shortly afterwards, with O’Halloran looked destined to equalise, only to send it wide from point blank range.
The game began to open up as Fleetwood continued in search of a leveller and Lincoln McFayden’s latch-defending was required to keep out substitute Cian Hayes.
However, the Lilywhites removed any feeling of doubt by scoring 83rd-minute second. Dolan positioned himself brilliantly to win the ball back high up the pitch and when he nudged it forward for Brannigan, he struck cleverly into the far corner.
Jack Armer, coming on for his first appearance since recovering from appendicitis, headed just over in the final minute but a third wasn’t required, PNE good value for their two-goal winning margin.
And Harrison, the Academy boss, was pleased with the attitude showcased by his young players.
“I thought we dominated overall, especially first half,” he told the club website. “The pitch was really lively in terms of when we were passing the ball, so there were a few mistakes.
“I thought we stopped them playing, first half was much better than the second half. I was pleased in terms of the way we worked, we worked hard against them and we stopped them trying to play.
“It can always be better and we’ll analyse that with the players and work on being better, but overall I’m pleased with the performance and it’s a good result, it’s always good to win but there’s still lots to learn.
“Overall I thought we dominated it and I don’t think they had too many clear chances, so I think it was quite a professional performance and I’m pleased that we dominated it from a possession point of view.”
It has been a quiet month in the way of competitive football for the youth team but Harrison stressed each individual must always be working on improving their own game, regardless of the environment in which they are asked to play.
“At development level, you’ve got to keep going and the players have to keep progressing, so their intensity in training, a friendly game or an in-house game has to be the same. We look for the same and we’ll keep demanding that of the players.
“The players just have to keep improving, that’s the focus of youth football, to keep improving and bridge that gap between youth and professional level because that’s their objective, they want to get into first team football and professional football.
“We’ve got to keep working with them for the players to improve and if they buy into that, they’ve every chance of doing that.”
PNE line-up: Corcoran; Simmons, Earl, McFayden, Coulton (Armer, 84); O’Reilly, Baxter; Walker, Dolan, Jolly; Brannigan (Potts, 84). Subs not used: Lenton, Nolan, Pollard.