The Future’s Bright for Preston North End


The youth team at North End, as is the same at every club, has the potential to be something special.

With the recent announcement that Springfields is set to be improved and the plan being that eventually, the under 18’s will move there, I thought it would be an appropriate time to have another look at what the future of the club is currently looking like.

Adam O’Reilly

We’ll start by having a look at promising midfielder Adam O’Reilly. The Irishman is currently out on loan at Stalybridge Celtic, a team based in Greater Manchester who play in the Northern Premier League – the seventh tier of English Football.

O’Reilly joined North End from Irish club Ringmahon Rovers in 2016 after a successful trial. He’s gone on to play for Republic of Ireland’s Under 17’s making 6 appearances, scoring once. He also featured for his country in the 2018 UEFA European Under-17 Championship in which they reached the quarter-finals.

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O’Reilly joined the Celts in January in order to get more game time with added intensity which is a step up from playing for the youth side and so far he’s impressed. In particular, his new manager Simon Haworth.

After making 6 appearances for the Manchester club, he has managed to get a goal and an assist alongside a number of impressive performances. After scoring against Gainsborough Trinity a few games earlier, his latest stellar performance came against the same side as he notched an assist with a lovely low cross which was met by Jonathan Ustabasi to put the Celts 2-0 ahead. They went on to win the game 3-1 with Adam O’Reilly coming away with a man of the match performance.

After he scored his first goal, his manager praised the youngster whom he believed “was class” and that he enjoyed seeing a “young boy showing men how to do it – he grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck”.

He went on to talk about how “he kept doing the right things and showed maturity beyond his years”. High praise for an 18-year old.

Ethan Walker

Next up is young winger, Ethan Walker. The 17-year-old has been with North End since under 9 level and has been making headlines for a number of years after making his first appearance for the youth side at the age of just 14.

Walker made his debut for the North End first team against Aston Villa last campaign coming on as a substitute alongside Adam O’Reilly. In doing so, he became Preston’s youngest ever player at just 16 years and 156 days.

He then made his second appearance for the Lilywhites this season in the first round of the Carabao Cup in a 4-0 away win at Bradford City. He came on in the 80th minutes as a substitute for Brad Potts and looked very lively in the 10 minutes or so he was on the pitch.

Ethan Walker

He then went on to sign for Altrincham, a club also based in Greater Manchester and play in the National League North – the sixth tier of English football. However, the loan spell didn’t really work out with Walker not getting as many minutes as he probably should have done and was later recalled by the club.

He did manage to make 4 appearances, 3 being starts, and got 2 assists during his time there but for various reasons his game-time was limited.

From then he would move with Adam O’Reilly to join seventh tier side Stalybridge Celtic, a division below the level he had previously been playing at. Walker has made three appearances so far and already has an assist to his name after his free-kick set-up Adam O’Reilly.

Walker has made the most progress in terms of stepping up his progress to playing for the first team, and the tricky winger has impressed in the youth cup numerous times which will leave him in Alex Neil’s thoughts in the coming seasons.

Tyrhys Dolan

A player who has certainly stepped up his development in North End’s academy is Tyrhys Dolan. The attack-minded midfielder signed for North End in the summer of 2017 after previously being at Manchester City and Burnley respectively.

He had an unbelievable last campaign with 10 goals and 7 assists in 27 appearances for the youth side, and this season he has been just as impressive. His form has continued into this season with 9 goals in 24 appearances.

His usual position is as a number 10 but he can also play out wide or even as a number 9 leading the line. The youngster has also captained the side a number of times and seems like someone who really has potential to make the step up to first-team football with North End.

In late February, as well as youth side team-mate Lincoln McFayden, Dolan joined Clitheroe FC on work experience for the remainder of the campaign. They will get vital experience playing in the first team whilst also joining Jack Baxter who arrived there in January on loan.

On his debut for Clitheroe, Dolan proved to be one of the few positives in the game as he scored from 25 yards out. The game ended up in a 4-1 defeat for Clitheroe but you can clearly see that there is much more to come from Tyrhys Dolan.

Aaron Bennett

A surprise report came about in early January from journalist Alan Nixon who claimed North End were ready to “fast-track” 15-year-old, Aaron Bennett.

The youngster recently turned 16 and has been making appearances for North End’s academy, but the statement from Alan Nixon was based on ‘insiders’ describing the attacking midfielder as “the best find in years”.

The Welshman made an appearance in the FA youth cup victory over Bristol City as well as reportedly featuring in behind closed doors game with senior players. This goes to show how many people within the club must rate him and are looking for him to continue his development.

It was claimed that he may be in the first team picture before the end of the season, which I find difficult to believe with Alex Neil seeming set on wanting experience. Especially considering the position we find ourselves in at this stage of the season. But it leads me to believe it wouldn’t be crazy to think we may see Bennett next season should we still be in the Championship.

He has been playing in the youth side for a number of months with his debut coming early in the 2018/19 season. He has 4 goals so far this season and it seems he’s impressed on the whole.

Jack Armer

The final player I’m going to a look at is defender Jack Armer. The Scotsman can comfortably play centre half or left-back and has already managed to get into the thoughts of Alex Neil at the age of just 18.

A Preston fan himself, Armer has captained the under 18’s on a couple of occasions and has been with the club since under 9 level. He’s gone on to feature for the Scotland national side at under 16 and 17 levels, showing his potential as he looks to eventually break into the first-team squad in the future.

In the summer of 2019, Armer signed his first professional contract with the club. He explained how he was delighted and explained: “I’ve always supported the club, my mum and dad support the club and so to finally have a chance to play for Preston North End is a dream come true.”

At the beginning of the season, Armer was loaned out to Lancaster City, a club North End have dealt with in the past and based on Josh Earl’s development with them at the back end of the 2016/17 season, presumed he would have a good time with the Dolly Blues.

But in early December, Armer was recalled from his loan as we suffered a quite a number of defensive injuries. Just before the West Brom encounter which we fell to a 1-0 defeat after a controversial late penalty for the visitors, Alan Browne had a tight hamstring which added to an already lengthy injury list that included Patrick Bauer, Ben Davies, Andrew Hughes, Tom Clarke and Darnell Fisher.

So Armer was recalled for the possibility of Alan Browne not being fit and Neil was prepared to switch Joe Rafferty to right back and bring Jack Armer in at left-back.

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Alan Browne was deemed fit and Armer was left as an unused substitute but this would have undoubtedly been a positive experience for the youngster; being involved in the match-day squad for his boyhood club.

Armer then returned to Lancaster in mid-January when North End’s injury list eased. Jack’s return to Lancaster saw him looking to build on the initial progress he had made earlier in the season with 22 appearances, scoring 3 times.

Lancaster currently sit in 5th place in the seventh tier and are currently 11 points behind table-toppers South Shields. On top of this, all 3 teams above Lancaster have games in hand over them.

Armer will soon be facing teammates Adam O’Reilly and Ethan Walker in early April as Lancaster are away at Stalybridge Celtic. However, Armer will be looking to build on the experience he’s had and will undoubtedly have an eye on a future in the first team.

Under 23s

A final point from me; I think we’re massively lacking a mid-stage between the youth side and the first team.

We dropped the under 23’s side a few years back but I believe that it would be good to use at this moment in time. It would provide fringe players regular game time which would keep them match fit should they be called upon. A perfect example is Ryan Ledson who doesn’t really get a look in apart from when Ben Pearson is either injured or suspended and even then, that’s not guaranteed.

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It would also provide youth team players with a step between playing youth team football and first-team football which would better prepare them for a future in league football.

In conclusion, there are a number of players here who I can see featuring in a North End shirt in the not too distant future, and I wish all the players featured in this piece all the best in their development as they look to progress through the ranks and work their way into the first team.

Don’t forget to listen to the latest episode of the From the Finney podcast and hear what the lads had to say about this weekend’s upcoming game against Luton Town.