David Unsworth hailed the “great character” of his inexperienced Everton Under-23 side after they overcome the blow of conceding a 74th-minute equaliser to beat Portsmouth 2-1.
Unsworth was missing a plethora of his regular performers – either due to international duty or being out on loan – for the Premier League Cup match on the south coast.
But the boss was thrilled with the accomplished manner in which a clutch of Under-18s, including excellent defender Con Ouzounidis and England youth international Alex Denny, stepped into the breach.
Everton scored the game's first goal on 72 minutes, when Nathan Broadhead met Luke Garbutt’s delivery with a firm header which defeated Pompey goalkeeper Alex Bass.
Theo Widdrington equalised from the penalty spot but with three minutes to play the superb Garbutt swung over another delivery for substitutes Antony Evans and Shayne Lavery to combine for the winner.
“We lost the game here last year in similar circumstances, so it was great character from our young team – and we were a young team tonight – and I am delighted with the win,” Unsworth told evertonfc.com
“Portsmouth raised their game and I thought they played very well, they were really well organised and worked extremely hard. You have to bide your time and take your opportunities when they come.
“We had some chances in the first-half but in the second our superior fitness told.
“I have learned a couple of things about some of our really young players from the Under-18s and I am delighted with their performance.
“This is an honest group, full of character and spirit. Even when we go behind, or a team equalises against us, I know the lads will keep chipping away and searching for the win, because they are used to winning.
“And it is a great habit to have.”
Everton started the match with a back three but after half-time reverted to a back-four, with Denny moving into midfield.
Jose Baxter was also pushed further forward following the restart, before being replaced by eventual match-winner Lavery.
Unsworth subsequently sent on attack minded par Sam Byrne and Evans, as he went after the three points that would represent a perfect start to this term’s Premier League Cup for his side.
“We are Everton and we need to win every game,” said Unsworth. “We would never disrespect any team by just turning up and expecting to win.
“We prepared properly, did our homework and made positive changes at the right time. We had Con and Alex, two really young players, and we wanted to protect them in a back five – but we looked at their system (in the first-half) and they played with one striker, so we wanted to get another striker on.
“And it is always nice when you make substitutions and they come off.”
Unsworth was thrilled for Northern Irishman Lavery, who has missed a lot of football through injury, and the manager was similarly pleased to see Byrne getting more action as he continues to work his way back to fitness after breaking a leg 18 months ago.
There was praise, too, from Unsworth for Garbutt, after the left-back capped an energetic, positive display by creating both his team’s goals.
“Luke was absolutely terrific,” said Unsworth. “That was Luke back to somewhere like his best – showing his energy up and down the left.
“And he defended well. We have done a lot of work with Luke defensively – we all know his left foot is quality in the right areas but we have done a lot of defensive and fitness work with him
“In the last 20 minutes he kept bombing forward and I lost count of the number of quality crosses he put in. And they paid dividends with two great goals.
“I am delighted with him. He was disappointed not to go out on loan but that is football sometimes. He has got his head down, bought into what this group of players is all about and the credit goes to him.
“I am delighted for Shayne as well, and Sam Byrne who has come back from a horrendous injury.
“And Con Ouzounidis was a man mountain at the back. He played tonight because of his performances for the Under-18s and I am thrilled for him because I thought he was our man of the match.”