A late Tranmere Rovers equaliser forced the youth team to settle for a draw in a thrilling eight-goal season-concluder at Springfields.
The young Lilywhites took the lead from the spot through Joe Rodwell-Grant and despite being pegged back they went into the break in front thanks to Noah Mawene’s tap-in on the stroke of half-time.
Jacob Holland-Wilkinson added another before the visitors fought back to make it 3-3, then Mawene’s second of the morning looked to have won it for North End, but it was spoils shared come the final whistle.
The line-up for the final match of the 2020/21 campaign was unchanged from last time out against Walsall.
Rodwell-Grant was making himself a nuisance for the Tranmere defence in the early going, backing into the opposition and winning a free kick which Lewis Leigh put over.
The striker should’ve got the opener when Holland-Wilkinson picked him out from the right, but the goalkeeper somehow saved his effort from a few yards out.
The hosts came even closer to going ahead when Lewis Coulton whipped an inch-perfect cross to the back post and Mawene headed onto the post. The ball came out to Holland-Wilkinson who opted to square it to Rodwell-Grant, but the defender intercepted.
Just before the half-hour mark Ben Dooley picked up on a loose touch from a wayward goal kick and pushed into the box, prompting the centre half to chop him down and the referee to award a penalty.
Rodwell-Grant stepped up and sent James Dinley the wrong way, placing the ball into the bottom right corner.
The PNE frontline continued to flirt with the Tranmere goalmouth and Holland-Wilkinson’s snapshot volley struck the bar and looped over.
It had been one-way traffic for most of the opening 45 but Tranmere found a leveller as half-time approached. A low cross from the left went all the way across the pitch, where Dee Rhami picked it up and took a shot which deflected in.
They nearly completed the turnaround when Keyni Mills broke clear, but his low effort went just wide of the left post.
It was North End who made it 2-1, though. Leigh played the ball over the top to Holland-Wilkinson, who cut inside and, in the process, nutmegged the defender before curling an effort towards the top right corner. The shot was saved, but the rebound fell to Mawene and he took a touch before passing it into the net.
Tranmere got inventive after the break as they looked to get back into it, deploying a free kick technique which involved the two players stood over the ball pretending to both go to take it, before quickly crossing whilst looking at each other bemused. Their efforts were in vain though, as Ethan Gouldbourne headed over.
Holland-Wilkinson drew his side further ahead, tapping into an empty net from Dooley’s cutback after the midfielder had rounded the ‘keeper.
The two-goal lead didn’t last long, however. Mills once again broke clear and this time the striker did find the target, firing in at the front post.
The first change for the young Lilywhites saw Mikey O’Neil replace Harry Huddart.
Another chance went begging when Holland-Wilkinson stole the ball off Dinley and played it to Mawene, who took too much time to make his mind up on whether to shoot or pass, and his eventual ball to Rodwell-Grant was intercepted.
The missed chances caught up with the home side and another Tranmere break brought the game level once more. Oliver Lombard saved from Ryan Stratulis’ stinging shot, but Cameron Ferguson was on hand to head home the rebound.
Neither side held back as they searched for another goal. Rodwell-Grant’s deflected shot hit the bar, and a minute later Lombard produced an impressive double save at the other end.
Mawene looked certain to score again when he rode a challenge and had a clear sight of goal, but his shot was blocked and it bounced off a couple of bodies before going for a corner.
Leigh floated the set-piece to the back post and Mawene made no mistake this time, powering his header into the top corner to make it 4-3.
Two more changes were made after the goal, with Dana Amaral and Jacob Slater coming on for Dooley and Holland-Wilkinson.
It looked as though the three points were secured, but it wasn’t to be. The ball was cut back from the left to the edge of the box and substitute John James got on the end of it and shot low for his side’s third equaliser of the match.
O’Neil went agonisingly close to scoring the game’s ninth goal in added time when his curling left-footed shot was heading for the top left corner, but Dinley got his fingertips on it and diverted it onto the post.
The full-time whistle brought the conclusion of a nonstop, relentless contest, and also the season for PNE U18.
Speaking after the match, Academy manager Nick Harrison said: “We’re obviously disappointed to draw the game, but we’re pleased with how we performed in the game because I thought we dominated it.
“We passed the ball well, opened Tranmere up and when they were sat deep, we created some good chances. We showed some real quality. What we didn’t do enough is, we weren’t clinical.
“We should’ve had scored seven or eight. But in terms of the result, you shouldn’t have to score seven or eight to win a game, and probably the only disappointing bit about today, and finishing the season, is that we conceded the four goals and how we conceded them. All four could’ve been avoided.
“Ultimately, to win games, which is what football is all about, you’ve got to stop the opposition from scoring, and we just didn’t do that well enough today.”
Reflecting on the campaign as a whole, Harrison added: “Really pleased with the season. I think the positives are that we’ve seen a lot of the younger players step up, the likes of Noah Mawene and Josh Seary, both U16 players, and we’ve seen some of the first years really develop.
“It’s been a really difficult season with Covid and the restrictions. I think it’s been a real positive throughout the season, the way that we’ve played.
“We’ve scored lots of goals and we’ll continue to work on that and keep developing the players, and we’re already planning and looking forward to next season.”
PNE U18 Line-Up: Lombard, Nicholson, Coulton, Huddart (O’Neil 68), Nevin, Blanchard, Dooley (Amaral 85), Leigh, Rodwell-Grant, Mawene, Holland-Wilkinson (Slater 87)
Subs not used: Duggan, Mfuni