Preston’s recent history with youth development is something of a mixed bag.
Back in the day, Andrew Lonergan, David Lucas and Paul McKenna became first team players. Josh Earl and Ben Davies are now thriving under Alex Neil, but the period between was a little disappointing.
Danny Mayor and Jamie Proctor failed to live up to the hype, and Conor McLaughlin was mistakenly offloaded. Contract rebels Bailey Wright and Josh Brownhill became first-team regulars, but then joined Bristol City.
With Earl and Davies faring well, hopes are being raised again that more youngsters can come through the ranks. Jack Baxter and Adam O’Reilly have both featured this season, as has forward Ethan Walker.
Walker may just be the cream of the North End youth crop. The 16-year-old has impressed in the FA Youth Cup this season, tormenting Charlton and Norwich earlier this season.
A wide player or striker, Walker has dazzled with his ability to go past players. He’s direct and skilful, and Neil saw enough to hand him a league debut against Aston Villa in December.
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Since then, it’s been back to the youth setup for Walker, and he’s continuing to shine. North End’s academy Twitter account tweeted a video of Walker’s latest goal yesterday; a solo strike in the 1-1 draw with Walsall.
As the post states, that’s now 20 goals since the beginning of last season for Walker. He’s an incredibly exciting talent, producing real moments of quality at such a young age.
Earl made his full debut under Neil at 18, so Walker may still have some time in youth football yet. Yet if he keeps scoring goals and causing mayhem for youth defenders, it’s not hard to imagine he could be given a chance to shine in pre-season.
Neil has already told the Lancashire Evening Post earlier this season of his excitement about Walker. The North End boss has recognised Walker’s potential, believing he is ‘dynamic’ going forward; the kind of player to get fans off their seats.
Mayor and Proctor had real hype in their formative years at Deepdale, but fizzled out quickly. Neil’s task will be to maximise Walker’s potential and give North End an exciting homegrown talent, and having worked wonders with Davies, it’s fair to be excited about Walker’s future.