By Harry Ewbank: A late equaliser from England Under-17 international Joe Gelhardt preserved Wigan Athletic’s unbeaten status in the EFL Youth Alliance North West division as they drew 1-1 with Tranmere Rovers.
The Latics had dropped just two points all season, but were held for the first time since November after defender Kyle Hayde’s early opener for the visitors, who have now tied five games in succession.
Wigan entered the match with a depleted squad through illness, while they were also still fresh from their first defeat in any competition this season, having lost to Liverpool in the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup in their previous fixture.
And Tranmere piled on the misery with a lightning quick start, with first-year apprentice Hayde rising highest to head home from an in-swinging corner just five minutes after the first whistle.
Rovers had kept clean sheets in their previous two games and displayed more resolute defending early on, with Wigan’s only notable opportunity of the opening half an hour coming when Bayleigh Passant’s punch ricocheted into the path of Adam Long, who struck wide.
However, Tranmere’s backline retreated further and further towards their own goal as the half progressed, allowing the hosts to strike the woodwork three times, while Mitchell Culshaw’s header was denied by the sharp reactions of Passant.
The young Latics continued on the front foot after the break and were unlucky not to get back on terms when a Luke Robinson free-kick went inches away from the top corner.
Reinforcements were made by Wigan’s Under-18s coach Peter Murphy in a bid to restore parity, with first-year starlet Gelhardt being introduced off the bench. His arrival provided a much-needed spark for the home side’s attack, although a breakthrough still evaded them as a couple of strong penalty appeals were waved away.
And with time running out, it was Gelhardt who produced the moment of magic and claimed his 15th goal of the season in the process to protect Wigan’s 27-game unbeaten league run dating back to January 2018.
The 17-year-old fired a powerful effort from distance into the bottom corner that was too hot to handle for Passant, who could not parry the ball away despite getting fingertips to the strike.
“We did well to get into the final third and got balls in the box, but it was just that final finish that we lacked,” Murphy told LFE. “It was attack versus defence at times, but if you give a team something to hold onto they will make it difficult for you.”
Meanwhile, Tranmere Academy Manager Andy Parkinson said: “I would have taken 1-1 before the game – I think lots of teams have played Wigan this season and struggled.
“We executed a specially prepared system, formation and gameplan to come with, and to get within two minutes of beating the likely league winners means the lads should be extremely proud of themselves.”