Paul Tait reserved praise for the gargantuan performances of defensive pair Elliot Richards and Michael Collins after Everton Under-18s started the new year on a winning note.
The young Blues triumphed 2-1 at fellow high-flyers Derby County, after prolific pair Anthony Gordon and Manasse Mampala both picked up where they left off in 2017 to fire Tait’s team into a 2-0 half-time lead.
Irish midfielder Jason Knight halved the hosts' deficit five minutes after the break, but Everton battened down the hatches to resist a Derby onslaught and secure a fifth successive Under-18 Premier League victory.
Their success in the East Midlands sees Everton leapfrog Manchester United into third, two points behind second-placed Manchester City, and a further point adrift of leaders Liverpool – but with a game in hand over their Merseyside rivals.
Tait, however, is refusing to look too far ahead and has set his side the immediate goal of winning all three of their league fixtures this month.
The win against Derby, then, moved the Young Blues a third of the way towards their coach’s objective – with matches against Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion to follow in January.
“The players have worked extremely hard in the past 10 days, so we are delighted with the performance and the result,” said Tait.
“We had the lads in over Christmas – we normally have an extended break but we wanted to ensure we hit the ground running with this game coming so early.
“We knew all about Derby and we had a specific plan for the match. Instead of playing out from the back all the time, we went a bit more direct, so they did not get a chance to press us. It caught them out a bit in the first half.
“Then we knew they would throw everything at us after half-time. Our two centre-halves, Elliot Richards and Michael Collins, did all the things centre-halves have to do, heading and clearing the ball and putting themselves in the way of shots.
“We were delighted with how all of the back-four did their jobs.
”Tait’s team took the first step towards avenging last month’s Premier League cup defeat to the Rams on 37 minutes.
Everton countered from a Derby corner, with Mampala slipping a pass forward for Gordon [pictured], who rounded 'keeper Joe Fryatt to stroke home his 13th goal in 11 league matches this term.
Gordon turned provider two minutes later, the 16-year-old picking out Mampala with a pinpoint pass to the right flank.
Mampala, one year Gordon’s senior, jinked past his marker and finished emphatically with his left-foot – the forward’s eighth strike in 11 league outings.
Knight replied five minutes into the second half but, try as they might, the home team could not prevent the young Blues from returning north with all three points.
“Derby are up near the top of the league in fifth, they are a good team who work really hard and press you,” continued Tait.
“They have some athletes who can get around the pitch and make life difficult for you.
“We told the players at half-time that we needed to continue doing the right things and playing forward passes. But then Derby scored early and we had to do quite a bit of defending.
"We were really pleased with how the lads responded to that. They put their bodies on the line and were making blocks and headed clearances. It was really pleasing to see it through and win the match.
“We just have to keep going now. We are setting mini targets – we have three league games in January and the aim is to win them all.
“We have won one – and we have two more to go.”