Isabel Sheridan scored her 20th goal of the season as Derby County Women U20s remained top of the FAWNL Reserve Midland League with a 2-1 victory over West Bromwich Albion at Moor Farm.
Sheridan struck the second of two quick-fire first half goals to ensure Derby maintained the pace over Nottingham Forest as the Ewes put in a gritty performance over one of their fellow title hopefuls.
Laura Monk set the hosts on their way before needing to hold out a one-goal lead in the closing stages after the Baggies had struck with 15 minutes to go.
The Ewes, unbeaten in the league this season, remain a point clear at the top of the division with five matches remaining.
Despite the Ewes’ 11-match winning run in the league coming to an end last weekend, manager Dan Dobrzycki showed trust in his team, naming an unchanged lineup from the draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers.
West Brom began the game well and had the first opportunity of the match when Izzie Whittick struck a loose ball over the bar from the edge of the area, before Monk rushed Derby’s first strike on goal at the other end.
Iesha Rollins’ through ball for Sheridan was inches from its designated target after Monk had done well with a headed ball forward.
The hosts found the breakthrough on 16 minutes. After Holly Otter had been poked through on goal and successfully evaded a challenge to see a shot saved, Monk was in the right place at the right time to stab home the rebound.
The goal came at just the right time for Derby as Monk, playing in an advanced midfield position, showed great instinct to score her fifth goal in four matches.
The Ewes were in dreamland almost instantly as a one-goal lead became two. Sheridan showed a great turn of pace to get in front and around visiting goalkeeper Ellie Lock, before expertly finding the bottom corner with a neat, rolled finish that clipped the post in the process to mark her third successive game on the scoresheet.
Sheridan and Rollins combined well before the former narrowly curled an effort wide as Derby took control of the contest.
The Baggies had the frame of the goal to thank moments later as Laila Abadi fired a powerful effort from 25 yards against the crossbar, only for Sheridan to get caught in two minds on the rebound and hit a strike that was saved low.
Derby continued to attack. Otter showed great strength to win the ball back in midfield before it is recycled to Sheridan. The youngster’s bending effort looked destined for the top corner had it not been for a smart save by Lock.
The last kick of the half saw Lola Smith’s crossbar struck as she appeared to misread the flight of Whittick’s cross from the right as it looped onto the woodwork and out of play.
The first action of the second half saw a fast Derby breakaway, with Sheridan at the heart of it, result in Rollins slamming wide of the near post.
Smith tipped a powerful Minnie Cottrell strike from distance over the bar as the intensity of the half slowed. This perhaps suited the Ewes more given the two-goal cushion.
But that cushion would be halved with 15 minutes to play. Whittick bundled in Ellie McFarlane’s free-kick from close range to bring Albion back into the contest.
The visitors were piling on the pressure and Whittick, who looked to be at the heart of every West Brom attack, nearly scored the spectacular but her acrobatic effort looped just over Smith’s goal.
Whittick was then booked for hacking down Alex Owens as Derby closed out a big victory and opened a six-point buffer between themselves and their opponents.
The young Ewes are next in action when they host bottom side Long Eaton United at Moor Farm next Sunday.
Derby County (4-2-3-1): Smith; Owens, Brassington, M. Towers, Newton; Otter, Abadi; Hunt (c), Monk, Rollins (Humphrey); Sheridan. Subs: A. Towers, Mauro, Barnes, Goodwin.
While the performance may not have been as flawless as in recent weeks, manager Dobrzycki was keen to stress the result was the most important aspect against strong opposition.
He also heaped praise on the Baggies, who held Derby to a goalless draw in the opening match of the season.
Speaking after the game, Dobrzycki said: “We’re really pleased. It was about the result today, top of the table clash and they're very good side.
“I've gone on record before and said that they are the best team we've seen this season, I probably haven't changed your mind on that and that’s no disrespect to Wolves, Forest, Stoke. Overall, top-to-bottom, they are probably the best side.”
Dobrzycki was also pleased with the manner of the goals his side scored, with both coming within a minute of each other in a frantic spell during the first half.
“They were really good goals in terms of what we wanted to do,” he said. “West Brom had quite a bit of a ball in their own half, they are good at that but that was by design.
“I think everybody could see in the first half some of the traps we set in our system. We were happy for him to have it but as soon as it went into certain areas, we went and got the ball. Both goals came as a result of us winning the ball back with a decent press and they were both taken really well.
“Laura has been scoring all season, which is unlike her in previous years, but I think she's added that to her game so fair play to her. [Sheridan] took her goal really well, very composed as the defender comes in and to go around the goalie and then slot it from a tricky angle. They were both excellent goals.”
The Ewes boss was absent for last week’s draw with Wolves and thanked his fellow coaches, as well as crediting his squad for returning to winning ways.
He said: “Obviously, I personally wasn't there with a bit of illness, so although I've seen the game back and stuff, it's hard to judge it in the same way.
“All credit to the players for what they do, the work rate, taking on board what we say. They have basically executed what we've asked them to do. They've raised it in the bigger games, which I think's important.
“Massive thanks to the coaching staff, to Mark, Simon and Franco for keeping that intensity. From what I've heard, last week was a really good week of training and I think you can tell that coming into this game maybe compared to the Wolves game.
“I’m really pleased with all those guys as well and I'm really pleased to get back to winning ways today.”
On Sheridan reaching the milestone of 20 goals for the season, Dobrzycki said: “It’s not bad at all. She's 16 and just come up. She was playing in more of a number nine today, but she's been in midfield, she's been drifting in from the left, so she's not an out and out in the box all the time sort of forward. It's great for her to get her goals.”
The U20s are used to Sunday’s matches kicking off at 2pm. However, due to the senior side taking on local rivals Nottingham Forest at Pride Park, the game was moved to an 11am kick-off to allow the squad to watch both games and show their support.
Dobrzycki said this change had little impact on his side’s preparation and he was a fan of the earlier start time, also suggesting it may have been beneficial for his team.
“Everybody loses an hour with the clocks as well,” he said. “If I'm honest, it's probably affected West Brom more than us because they've got to travel, they’d have been up early.
“But it's nice, you don't have the anxious wait to kick off which is nice so I'm always all for a morning kick-off!”
The senior side playing at Pride Park is something to savour, with Dobrzycki saying occasions such as those are the sorts that his squad are aspiring to play in going forwards.
He said: “Absolutely. That's why we moved it to morning so we could all get across and watch that, we want to support them as well. It's a huge game.
“Some have been in and around it, some will get to that level without doubt. There's some very good players coming through.”
The Ewes now have five league games remaining, as well as a Derbyshire County Cup final, with Dobrzycki saying that his side need to maintain focus for the final push to the finish.
“It’s the old cliche isn't it that they are all cup finals now,” he said. “We can't afford to lose any of those. West Brom play Forest on the last game so some points will be being dropped there somewhere, but we have to focus on our bit and it's a very simple remit for us that if we do win all our games, we will probably win the league. If we stay unbeaten then there's a very good chance we'll win the league.
“We've just got to go and do our job now and get our prep right to the next one.”
Sheridan also spoke after the game and offered her thought after she became the first Ewes player to reach 20 goals in all competitions this season.
On the game, she said: “It was more of a battle to be honest, we played the first half really well. I think we dropped a little bit in the second half, but I think we actually played better after they got their goal because we wanted it more towards the end.
“I did quite a lot of running, to be fair. I worked quite hard but today was more of a team effort rather than my individual performance.”
Describing her goal, she said: “Sarah just played a perfect through ball, I took it past the keeper and passed it into the back of the net!”
Sheridan, enjoying her first season at U20s level, says she has been enjoying every minute of playing alongside her teammates and praised the performances across the season.
“Oh, I love it,” the 16-year-old said. “It's a great team with a good atmosphere and obviously being top of the league as well, winning most games, it's really good.”
“He’s alright,” Sheridan joked when asked what it is like working under Dobrzycki. “Yeah, he’s good. He’s always got a lot of feedback to give about performances and games.”
Report and Reaction by Kallum Brisset