David Unsworth hailed his side’s “massive achievement” after they beat Derby County 1-0 to secure top spot in the Premier League 2 table heading into the Christmas break.
Harry Charsley’s 73rd-minute strike settled a fiercely-contested clash at USM Finch Farm.
The result means Everton leapfrog the Rams, with the young Blues now two points clear of Craig Short’s men.
Boss Unsworth declared his delight with his side’s hunger and application against a gifted Derby outfit.
“There was very little between the two teams,” he explained. “I asked for a resolute performance and we got that. We’re delighted with the win.
“I thought we defended really well as a team. We threw our bodies on the line.
“We always knew after about 60 minutes we would open up and play a bit more expansively – and it worked perfectly.
“It was great to see Harry get the goal. We knew there would only be a goal in it today and so it proved.
“We’ve got a new group this season, and to be sitting where we are now is a massive achievement for the players.
“We have only lost two games and we have come together as a team. Now, what the players need to do is kick on as individuals.
“I’m very proud of the players, not just for today, but what they’ve achieved this season so far.
“As a group of staff, we came together at the start of the season and I think we’re getting the maximum out of this group of players. It’s great to see.”
Tyias Browning had the game’s first half-chance on three minutes – his glancing header from Antony Evans’ whipped corner delivery went just over the bar.
Dennis Adeniran, whose relentless energy and dynamism in the tackle caught the eye throughout, was the next man to have a clear sight at goal.
The move started was started by skipper Morgan Feeney, who unleashed a fabulous 50-yard raking ball into the path of Ellis Simms. The striker controlled before laying the ball off to Adeniran – but the midfielder could not get over his volleyed effort and it cleared Josh Barnes’ crossbar.
As the clock ticked past the half-hour mark, the young Blues were looking the more likely side – and they fashioned the best chance of the opening period on 36 minutes.
A brilliantly-inventive first-time through ball by Evans sent Simms scampering in on goal down the left channel. The 17-year-old checked inside and looked to beat Barnes at his near post, but the Derby stopper got down well to palm the shot away.
Derby came out of the blocks quickly in the second half and it needed a superb block by Con Ouzounidis to thwart a George Throne attempt on goal.
Boss Unsworth made a double substitution on the hour mark, with Josh Bowler and Bassala Sambou replacing Ouzounidis and Simms.
And Bowler almost made an instant impact, skinning Derby left-back Sven Karic before getting a shot away from a tight angle – Barnes was there to make a fine one-handed stop, however.
The Blues would make a deserved breakthrough on 73 minutes, however. Browning - who had stayed in an advanced position following an Everton corner - controlled a lofted through ball from Ryan Astley before expertly pulling the ball back for Charsley, who rifled home from just inside the area.
Charsley almost had a second seven minutes later when his swerving effort whistled past the post, before Derby exerted some pressure in the final minutes.
Thorne thumped just wide from 20 yards, before substitute Connor Dixon headed fractions off target in the final minute.
The Blues held firm to secure a vital three points and boss Unsworth was eager the praise the performance of towering centre-back Browning.
“Tyias has been a rock for us,” he said. “His attitude is superb, he has not missed a day’s training.
“He is a leader of the young lads. His performances over this period have been outstanding and I can’t speak highly enough of him.”