Dave Seddon's Preston North End Press View: Plenty of promise in PNE's academy

It’s been a very good season on the pitch for Preston North End’s youth team.

By Dave Seddon
Friday, 22nd April 2022, 4:45 pm

They were crowned EFL Youth Alliance North West champions with a few games to spare and in a couple of weeks will contest the national final of the Youth Alliance Cup against Luton Town – having beaten Bolton in the regional final.

All of the squad have featured at reserve-team level in the Central League this season, with it very much an Under-19s squad which beat Carlisle this week in the semi-final of the Central League Cup.

There is plenty of talent in this current youth set-up, in both the first and second year scholars.

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Ultimately the success of a year group and of an academy in general, will be judged by who progresses to first-team level.

That has been a bumpy path in recent seasons at North End, it not having been easy for youngsters to make their mark for differing reasons.

Ben Davies and Josh Earl were the last couple of academy products to properly establish themselves in the first-team squad, Davies the real success story after a succession of loans developed his potential.

There’s been Ethan Walker and Adam O’Reilly come through, both making their debuts as substitutes against Aston Villa back on New Year’s Eve, 2018.

Mikey O'Neill prepares to come on for his Preston North End debut against Queens Park Rangers at Deepdale

Walker added a Carabao Cup sub appearance at Bradford in 2019 to that, O’Reilly not having played at first-team level since and now he’s on loan at St Patrick’s Athletic in the League of Ireland.

Those two seem to have got lost in terms of the first-team over the last couple of years, with the focus having been on the use of far more experienced players.

Walker, who had to fall back on loan spells for senior football, came through in the same age group of Tyrhys Dolan, a name which haunts North End to this day.

He will be back at Deepdale on Monday night in the colours of Blackburn Rovers having left in the summer of 2020 without being offered terms at the end of his scholarship.

Preston North End's Mikey O'Neill on his debut against Queens Park Rangers

PNE will not want another Dolan scenario on their hands in seasons to come.

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The focus on the academy has certainly sharpened over the last year or so in terms of trying to make the pathway to the first-team picture that bit clearer.

Last summer, two of the first-year scholars taken on – Noah Mawene and Josh Seary – had the offer of professional deals for when they turned 17.

Lewis Leigh landed a pro deal in pre-season as he embarked on the second year of his scholarship.

Just recently Mikey O’Neill and Aaron Bennett have been offered pro deals as they reach the end of their second year as scholars.

Youth-team skipper Harry Nevin will join the pro ranks this summer, having agreed that deal when he signed as a scholar from Cork City two years ago.

O’Neill got a taste of the Championship, albeit a brief one, when he came on as a substitute against Queens Park Rangers a fortnight ago.

The attacking midfielder was a player Ryan Lowe quickly identified as having potential to be fast-tracked to the first-team picture when he took over as North End manager in December.

O’Neill making his debut was the culmination of plenty of hard work in training, both at Springfields with the Under-19s and then at Euxton.

PNE have high hopes for Bennett, a player with some real talent in his feet.

Bennett is not long back after a 10-month absence, the result of a torn anterior cruciate ligament which required surgery to repair.

An extra year’s scholarship was triggered by North End last week to tide him over while terms of his pro contract are sorted out, the same thing done with O’Neill.

In the final three games of the season it would be nice to see youth represented in the first-team squad on a matchday. It would make sense for O’Neill to get another taste of it.

The fact Bennett is coming back from that long-term injury, might mean he will have to wait until pre-season to spend more time in the senior ranks.

A very useful development tool to help youngsters bridge the gap between academy and first-team, is the loan market.

North End have regularly sent young players out on loan but not always at the level which will really develop them.

Ideally they will want them going to League Two – as Walker did with Carlisle – or National League.

But a problem they come up against is a reluctance for clubs at those levels to take chances on youngsters.

Managers work on a tight budget and very much against the clock – the average length of a manager’s time in the job is measured more in months than years.

Does a manager opt for potential or lean towards a more experienced player with games under his belt?

I mentioned Ben Davies higher up the article and look what the loan system did for him.

York City, Tranmere, Southport, Newport and Fleetwood were clubs he played for on loan before breaking into the PNE first-team on a regular basis.

At the time, York were a League Two club – he fought a play-off campaign with them - Southport being his one dip into non-league.

We will watch with interest how the current Under19s develop in seasons to come. In the shorter term, they deserve our congratulations for a fine season which could yet see them win more silverware.