Preston North End’s Wembley dream ended in heartache as they lost 2-0 to Walsall on aggregate in the JPT Northern Area Final.
PNE needed goals to overturn a 2-0 first-leg defeat but failed to hit the target in a lacklustre first-half showing.
Despite a late peppering of Walsall keeper Richard O’Donnell’s goal and a heroic performance by captain Tom Clarke North End failed to fire and drew 0-0 at the Bescot stadium.
The result means Walsall will travel to Wembley for the first time in their 127 year history as Dean Smith’s men sealed a place in the JPT final.
PNE boss Simon Grayson recalled veteran striker Kevin Davies to the starting XI. Davies’ last goal for the club was in January 2014 and he started as a lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Sylvan Ebanks-Blake dropped to the bench as Grayson made one change to the side that drew 1-1 with Sheffield United on Saturday.
And it was the host’s Walsall who started lively as Jordan Cook sent the ball fizzing wide in the 11th minute.
Clarke latched on to Paul Gallagher’s fierce set-piece but his header ballooned over the bar in the 20th minute.
John Welsh tried to head the ball back to PNE keeper Thorsten Stuckmann but instead teed-up Walsall’s top goal scorer Tom Bradshaw to bear down on goal. But fortunately for PNE Paul Huntington managed to put pressure on the striker and he skimmed his shot wide of goal.
Stuckmann was forced into action once again as he dived to his right to stop Michael Cain’s long range effort as PNE failed to fire an effort on target in the opening 45.
The Saddlers made a lively start to the second half as Anthony Forde’s shot was blocked by John Welsh and fizzed out for a Walsall corner.
And Stuckmann made a fine reaction save to deny Romaine Sawyers from close range after the midfielder attempted to flick the ball into the net in the 50th minute.
O’Donnell parried Gallagher’s shot into the path of Chris Humphrey and his shot was parried once again and headed over by a Walsall defender.
Adam Chambers was booked for clattering Kyel Reid in the 56th minute but PNE could not capitalise on the subsequent set-piece.
Humphrey tamely flicked the ball straight at Walsall keeper O’Donnell in the 59th minute and moments later Andy Taylor blasted the ball just over Stuckmann’s bar.
Clarke was booked for a foul on Cook in the 64th minute and Walsall striker Bradshaw uncharacteristically headed the ball over at the back post from the subsequent free-kick.
Walsall keeper O’Donnell was booked for time wasting in the 71st minute and Cain was booked seconds later for upending Reid.
PNE substitute Jack King was fouled on the edge on the edge of the box and Gallagher’s low free-kick forced O’Donnell to dive low to his left. The keeper parried the ball but recovered to save Ebanks-Blake’ header moments later.
O’Donnell made a good reaction save to deny Clarke’s header another shot before a defender cleared Alan Browne’s close range effort off the line.
Ebanks-Blake rattled the crossbar with a fierce strike and Reid’s strike flew straight at O’Donnell but it was all to late as PNE crashed out of the JPT.
PNE: Stuckmann, Woods, Clarke, Huntington, Buchanan, Humphrey (King, 70), Welsh (Browne, 70), Kilkenny, Reid, Gallagher, K Davies (Ebanks-Blake, 60). Subs not used: Wiseman, Brownhill.
Walsall: O’Donnell, Taylor, O’Connor, Downing, Chambers, Bradshaw, Sawyers, Cain, Chambers, Cook (Baxendale, 88), Forde. Subs not used: Purkiss, Flanagan, Manset, MacGillivray.
Referee: Nigel Miller (County Durham)
Attendance: 10,038 (907)