The 2019/20 season is over for Preston North End’s U18 side, following confirmation from the EFL that the current campaign has been terminated with immediate effect.
The initial halt of the football season almost two months ago came at a time where Nick Harrison’s U18 side had just seven games remaining this term.
Having built a strong winning mentality throughout the campaign, the young Lilywhites have sat in second place in the North West Youth Alliance league since that standstill came into place.
An intriguing tie against league leaders Salford City had been set for last weekend, what would have been North End’s youngsters’ final game of the season. Fleetwood Town were also in contention at the top, sitting three points behind PNE with as many games in hand.
How the final league standings will be determined remains unknown at the current time, but regardless of that outcome, the young Lilywhites can certainly look back on the campaign as a positive one.
All the way back in August, they set off in blistering form, reaching double figures for goals within three games.
Ethan Walker, who has since signed professional terms with the club, spearheaded the early charge with two goals and two assists in the season opening 5-3 win against Rochdale, while also registering a brace and setting up Jacob Holland-Wilkinson’s winner in the 3-2 win over Morecambe the following Saturday.
Also on target in the early games were Ben Dooley and Joe Rodwell-Grant in the defeat of Dale, while Holland-Wilkinson and Tyrhys Dolan struck against Salford, which brought a first defeat of the season in a narrow 3-2 defeat.
All was certainly not lost, however, and PNE’s young charges bounced back by showing renewed defensive solidity, following that up with four clean sheets in a row.
The first three of those matches saw resounding victories, a fine away win at Bradford City setting the tone for the Youth Alliance Cup campaign, followed by a convincing 3-0 away success over Blackpool, all nicely rounded off with a 6-0 drubbing of Accrington Stanley.
The list of goalscorers continued to grow, with forward Louis Potts getting off the mark for the season against the Bantams alongside defender Lewis Earl – the younger brother of first team defender Josh – who finishes the campaign with a respectable four goals from defence.
Meanwhile, Joe Nolan kicked off the scoring in some style against Stanley and Aaron Bennett, the Wales U16 international who has enjoyed a breakthrough campaign in midfield while still a schoolboy, also registered his first of the campaign.
There was double disappointment to follow, though. In the previous two campaigns, North End had reached the final of the Lancashire FA Professional Youth Cup, but were eliminated at the opening third round stage on this occasion, with the narrowest of losses to Fleetwood with a penalty shoot out loss, after a goalless 90 minutes.
The following weekend presented a familiar foe, as Fleetwood beat North End for a second weekend in succession, but that setback inspired the young Lilywhites to new heights.
Victory over Rochdale in the next game marked the start of a 13-match unbeaten run that stretched into the new year. During that time Harrison’s side finished their Youth Alliance Cup group with a maximum nine points and without conceding a goal, ultimately reaching the regional semi-final of the competition.
Not only that, but the youngsters’ efforts meant there was another impressive FA Youth Cup run on the cards, with victories over Bristol City and Oxford United at Deepdale either side of the turn of the year seeing PNE set-up a mouth-watering fifth round tie with Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park.
There were personal achievements aplenty during that time, too, with Holland-Wilkinson reaching the individual landmark of double figures in goals for the campaign showcasing just how well he had adjusted to life as a first year scholar.
A key marker of the youth team’s success has also been witnessed in the sharing of the captain’s armband. Without one designated figure to look towards in the more challenging times, a number of leaders have emerged at such early stages of their development, with several players given the responsibility of being captain.
The new decade began just as the run had indicated, with a 2-0 home win ensuring the league double was complete over rivals Blackpool with a superb Dolan goal included.
Unfortunately, however, the good form was eventually halted by Fleetwood in the league, that the first of four successive defeats in three different competitions.
An uncharacteristic display away at Rotherham United brought the Youth Alliance Cup campaign to an end the following weekend, and a game-changing red card proved key as North End exited the FA Youth Cup, hosts Blackburn coming from behind to win 4-2.
It had looked as though the tide had begun to turn again as a youthful Lilywhites outfit responded by easing past Oldham Athletic with a 4-0 win, with Harry Huddart and Lewis Leigh netting their first youth team goals in the process.
It was Kyi Nicholson who experienced the goalscoring feeling for the first time against Shrewsbury Town in early March, his deadlock-breaking strike followed up by another effort from Potts, carrying on his impressive goalscoring form.
That proved to be the Lilywhites’ last outing of the season, but there have been also been encouraging loan spells away from the club for Academy graduates Adam O’Reilly, Jack Armer and Jack Baxter, earning game time in senior football with Stalybridge Celtic, Lancaster City and Clitheroe, respectively.
Three members of the U18 squad have experienced time away playing non-league football as well. Ethan Walker linked up with O’Reilly at Stalybridge, having also enjoyed a loan spell with Altrincham earlier in the campaign, while Lincoln McFayden and Tyrhys Dolan joined Baxter in the starting XI at Clitheroe’s Shawbridge.
While North End’s crop of scholars will no doubt eagerly await how the final league standings will be resolved, they can certainly look back on a number of positive performances and experiences from this prematurely ended season to further aid their future development.