In terms of the media, we’re often brushed under the carpet and at times, blatantly ignored and that certainly transfers across to the transfer windows. Admittedly, we aren’t the most interesting in terms of the fan base and recent history but despite our relatively modest budget in comparison to the rest of the Championship, we have continued to compete at a high level in the past 4 seasons.
However, one thing that is perhaps overlooked by some North End fans is the work that is being done away from the first team and in the academy which is looking like it could potentially lead to a bright future for the club.
In recent times we have seen the huge progress that’s been made by a couple of players now well in the first team picture in Josh Earl and Ben Davies and they are a major credit to those involved in the youth team set-up. People like Nick Harrison, the Academy Manager and Lead Professional Development Phase Coach, Andy Fensome, Professional Development Phase Coach and Matt Craddock, Head of Coaching, to name just a few that some of you may have heard of.
Preston North End have always been a club that have given youth a chance as the saying goes. Ben Davies made his first team debut at the age of just 17 against Coventry City in a 2-2 draw whilst also getting an assist to set up Nicky Wroe to rescue a draw.
In addition to this, we also have Alan Browne and although he didn’t come through our academy, he signed from Cork City as a fresh faced 18-year-old in January 2014 without having made a first team appearance for Cork. He went on to make his debut in March of the same year and has since gone on to play in arguably our biggest in recent years in the play-off final at Wembley in 2015.
This season Browne has gone on to captain the side and has also made his 200th appearance for the club, something he described as a “huge honour” for himself.
Finally we have Josh Earl. He has been in the North End ranks since the age of 9-years-old and he made his breakthrough into the first team in the 2017/18 season when Greg Cunningham was sidelined with injury for a period. He has gone on to make 33 appearances in the Championship since his breakout season, including 5 substitute appearances.
These 3 players are great examples of what happens when players are given a bit of belief to go on and play at the level the club is at and also what coming through the youth team can do for a youngster.
I am going to take a look at some players who are currently in and around the youth set-up who are showing good signs of breaking through into the first team in the coming seasons.
The young Irishman has been in and around the first team squad this season and in December, after a ludicrous amount of injuries, he made his professional debut when he came on in the final few minutes of the game between North End and Aston Villa that finished 1-1.
In making his debut he became the 20th youngest player to represent Preston North End at just 17 years, 7 months and 19 days old. The following month in January, he signed his first professional contract with the club.
Prior to all of this, O’Reilly was also named on the bench against Wolves last season which highlights how highly thought of the youngster is at the club, especially by the gaffer. Primarily a central midfielder, the youngster has been an integral part of the youth team in the past couple of seasons bagging 8 goals last season and this season has 9 in 19 appearances. Considering his position, that’s a very healthy return.
This season also included a 1-month loan for the young Irish man where he played 4 games for Hyde United scoring 1 goal. This is something that could prove useful in the long run (coupled with more loans perhaps) as we have seen that North End like to try and ensure their youngsters get game time in the past.
Take Ben Davies, for example, he spent a season on loan at Fleetwood Town under Uwe Rosler before he made his breakthrough here at North End but that spell on the Fylde Coast looks to have done him the world of good in terms of his development.
On top of all this, O’Reilly has also had an early start to his international career having played for the Republic of Ireland at numerous age groups and has currently made 6 appearances for the U17s with 1 goal to his name. He was also a part of the squad that reached the quarter-finals of the 2018 UEFA European Under-17 Championships.
Based off all of this, I’d say it’s quite likely that we’ll see Adam in and out of the first-team in the coming seasons with some loans thrown in here and there to aid his development and get him as much first-team football as possible.
Another player who I suspect will have a similar trajectory to Adam O’Reilly in the coming seasons is Ethan Walker. Much like O’Reilly, Walker has one first team appearance to his name which was also against Aston Villa.
The 16-year-old has been with the Lilywhites since he joined at under 9 level and in his time here he has had plenty of support from the academy and the rest of the club staff over the years. A sign of the youngster’s potential was that he was given the opportunity to represent Preston at U18 level whilst being just 14 years old himself.
He is a very fast, tricky winger and has a tendency to draw in defenders and will then beat his man for both pace and skill. On many occassions Walker has been compared to former PNE loanee Aiden McGeady for his trait of quick feet and skill on the ball.
Even though his small appearance against Aston Villa only lasted a few minutes, I for one saw something in him and seeing his very impressive record for the youth academy backs that up. Walker is definitely one for the future for North End with 11 goals in 21 games for the winger this campaign which more than speaks for itself and with a number of assists to add to his record.
Walker appears to have a bright future ahead of him which I’m sure North End will capitalise on in the coming seasons.
Next up is Midfielder Jack Baxter who has captained the youth team a number of times alongside Adam O’Reilly. The 18-year-old has travelled a number of times with the senior squad and has been noticed warming up with the first team alongside O’Reilly and Walker. Baxter’s first involvement with the senior squad was a pre-season trip away to cork which he attended with youth team team-mate Adam O’Reilly.
He is definitely someone who I could see having a future at North end and is such an important factor of the youth team which can only mean promising things for his future. In this campaign, he currently has 26 appearances with 11 goals to his name.
He can score a variety of goals including from open play, free kicks and he is the usual penalty taker. 11 goals for any midfielder is very impressive as he looks to follow in the footsteps of Alan Browne who in recent years have developed a tendency to finish the campaign with a high tally of goals from midfield.
He has also grabbed headlines in recent weeks for some incredible goals he has been scoring whilst playing for the academy. A quickly taken 60-yard free-kick which caught the Wigan keeper out in the cup final was one of the better strikes but he has joined Adam O’Reilly in scoring breath-taking long-range strikes on a regular basis.
— Preston North End FC (@pnefc) April 20, 2019
Jack recently received an award for the inclusion in the team of the month for February again showing his rapid progression and potential for where he could end up.
The final player is young striker Connor Simpson. The 6ft 4″ centre forward joined North End in January 2018 from Hartlepool amidst financial trouble for the club and has since spent time in the under 18 squad or has been out on loan at various levels.
His first loan spell of this campaign was the same team as Adam O’Reilly’s first loan spell of his career at Hyde United. This was a successful spell for Simpson who scored 6 goals and got 1 assist to his name in his 14 appearances for The Tigers.
He was then recalled and was promptly sent back out on loan to League Two side Carlisle United. This was a major step up for the striker but he seems to have done well looking from the outside in and hopefully, it will all go a long way towards making him ready, ultimately, for Championship football in the coming seasons.
In his time at Carlisle, he’s made 8 appearances with 7 being off the bench but it’s all about the experience at this stage of his career, and with a goal to his name it is encouraging to say the least for the 19-year-old. He definitely has the potential to make a career for himself at Deepdale and if you add to that the fact that Alex Neil has expressed his desire for a target man in the past, there’s a clear pathway for the youngster if he can tread it.
Preston’s youth team, on the whole, has been successful over the last two seasons if you include the cup runs with this season’s ending in the quarter-finals to a very strong Bury side. They also managed to reach the final of the youth cup but Wigan finished up 5-2 winners despite as previously mentioned, both Adam O’Reilly and Jack Baxter scoring goal of the season contenders. In terms of the league, Preston are third in group B above local rivals Blackpool and have won their last 3 games on the trot.
So, in conclusion, in North End’s youth set up, there are a number of strong contenders in terms of players who could possibly make the step up to the first team in the coming seasons and could potentially find themselves a part of the club for many years to come, much like the two who feature heavily in the squad at the moment; Ben Davies and Alan Browne.
As things stand at the moment, the future certainly looks bright for North End and their up and coming stars. Finally, I’d like to wish the new intake of youth players the best of luck in their time at the club.