Everton Under-23s conceded twice inside three second-half minutes to go down to a 3-1 Premier League 2 defeat by Derby County.
Luke Thomas opened the scoring for the Rams on nine minutes, but following substitute Shayne Lavery's expertly-taken equalising goal, David Unsworth’s side appeared poised to go on and secure the victory which would have lifted them a place to fourth in the table.
With 12 minutes left on the clock, however, visiting midfielder Max Bird drilled home from 20 yards. And with Everton committing men forward in pursuit of a second leveller, Derby broke to kill off the contest through Lewis Walker’s close-range finish.
The away team forged ahead with their first attack of any note. Winger Thomas was quick to spy his opportunity when Everton centre-back Michael Collins erred as he tried to clear a routine ball down the middle.
The 19-year-old attacker, who has a Rams’ first-team outing under his belt this term, strode forward and confidently dispatched a low finish beyond the helpless Mateusz Hewelt.
Everton sought a swift response, with Fraser Hornby heading into the clutches of Josh Barnes after meeting a flighted left-wing delivery from Lewis Gibson.
Indeed, with Derby dropping deeper as the half progressed, Gibson and fellow full-back Nathangelo Markelo were being afforded the run of their relative flanks.
Widemen Antony Evans and David Henen, too, were seeing oodles of the ball. And it was Evans and Henen who dovetailed beautifully down the right to tee up Hornby for another header at goal.
Belgian winger Henen galloped onto Evans’ intelligent return pass and hung a searching delivery towards the back post. Hornby met it with a bullet header, directed back across Barnes but into the meat of the visiting number one’s left-hand post.
Moments earlier, Barnes had watched on gratefully as Gibson’s close-range header from a flat, drilled Conor Grant free-kick travelled a foot past the post.
As Everton started to locate a greater rhythm, Derby centre-back Ethan Wassall was perfectly positioned to head clear with Bassala Sambou poised to streak onto an Evans through ball – and it was Wassall on his mettle again to get across and mop up with Sambou burrowing into the box and trying to latch onto a Hornby flick, one of countless aerial balls helped on by the athletic striker.
Evans had a volley blocked after more ambitious running down the left from Henen – the winger chopping back onto his right foot and floating a cross to his teammate, hurtling in at the back post.
But it was Derby, in the shape of lithe attacker Thomas, who showed up first after the interval.
Thomas sped past Gibson and, with the defender reluctant to challenge his elusive opponent as he made tracks in the box, it needed Toffees number one Hewelt to save smartly at his near-post to prevent his side from falling further behind.
Moments later, Derby skipper Alex Babos was narrowly off target with a long-range blast – but the Blues swiftly wrested back the initiative from their visitors.
It required an immaculate piece of defending from Alex Cover to prevent Hornby from having a free header at goal following a fizzing Henen delivery. Evans picked up the scraps and fed Grant who aimed his effort on target – but directly into the body of Barnes.
Barnes, however, was unable to keep out Lavery’s exquisite, stooping header – the ‘keeper’s right-handed touch not enough to deny the Everton striker.
Indeed, Lavery had only just arrived into the fray – the final throw of the dice from boss Unsworth after he had sent on Jose Baxter and Con Ouzounidis for the second-half – when he drew the Toffees level.
The mobile Evans was the architect, racing onto a pass from Alex Denny down the right and hooking in a first-time cross, which found Lavery darting to the front post, heading across Barnes and, despite the ‘keeper’s best efforts, into the bottom-left corner.
The stage appeared set for Everton to launch a grandstand finish – but as the Toffees attempted to put the hammer down, the away side made a change which swiftly turned the tide.
Morgan Whittaker replaced Cameron Cresswell and promptly set about having a telling say in matters.
The left-winger made his first contribution on 78 minutes, receiving possession at the edge of the Blues box and sliding a pass left for the onrushing Bird. He still had plenty to do – and did it conclusively, the midfielder arrowing a shot across Hewelt and inside the keeper’s left-hand post.
The game immediately became stretched, as the hosts frantically pursued a second leveller. And Derby – with Whittaker to the fore - exploited the extra space in the Everton half. The 17-year-old galloped through the heart of the pitch, before coolly placing a pass to the right and the overlapping Babos. He stroked the ball across the face of goal, leaving Walker to steam in at the back post and tap into an empty net.
Lavery twice tested Barnes in the dying embers, the ‘keeper saving comfortably from the forward’s low drive, then having to beat away Lavery’s more forceful shot at his near post.
But it was Derby who ultimately claimed the spoils, the Rams avenging their defeat to Everton in the reverse fixture at Pride Park five months ago – and leaving the Blues to lick their wounds before a trip to Leicester City in the Premier League Cup in seven days’ time.