Ricky Duncan is keen to see the club’s Under-18 side dictate play against their opponents after seeing them draw 1-1 with Gillingham in their first league match of 2014/15.
Renei Batlokwa gave Blues a 15th-minute lead against the Kent club, but Southend goalkeeper Josh Bexon had to make a penalty save before Gillingham earned a second-half equaliser. Duncan’s side ended the match much the stronger, but they were unable to source a winner.
“I was a bit disappointed in our play in the first half, even though we went in 1-0 up and I thought it was a good goal we scored with the passing, movement and Renei finishing it off,” said Duncan. “That was what we’ve been doing all pre-season, but we didn’t capitalise on it.”
“Gillingham are a hard team to play against; everything is just played long and we haven’t had to deal with that in our pre-season friendlies. We didn’t get our passing game going. They pushed us back and forced lots of corners and throw-ins with their direct style.”
“We’ve got to be a bit braver than that if we’re going to play, so I told the lads at half-time to try and get on the ball more. We started the second half sloppily with another ball punted up the field for their goal. It bounced and we didn’t attack the first ball and we conceded a poor goal.”
“What I was pleased about was defensively, across the game, apart from that, we stuck ourselves in there and threw our bodies in the way. As the game went on, we started to look like the stronger side and in the last 25 minutes we dominated the game but we just couldn’t force a winner. Nico Cotton hit the post and we had other opportunities, but it showed that, if we pass the ball, we can take teams on,” he added.
Duncan felt that, despite not earning a victory in the season-opener, the play inside that final period of the match augured well for the upcoming campaign: “You’ve got to enforce your own game. You’ve got to have that desire to go and get the ball and play. They were pressing and pressing us, but we’ve got to play against that.”
“I said to the lads that they’d got to get in and around the second ball, pick it up and then put together some quick passages of play. I think that’s what we started to do when we got to grips with it. It was a shame we couldn’t force the winner because I thought the last 25 minutes was excellent.”
“I was pleased with that last 25 minutes, and I was pleased with the goal. It was our fourth game in seven days, and it was our first competitive game of the season, but the final 25 minutes showed everything that we’re going to be about. The boys have got to believe in what they’re doing, first and foremost.”
Gillingham made it difficult for Blues, especially in the middle portion of the fixture, and Duncan was happy with how his teenage charges dealt with the pressure that the visitors exerted: “I thought the boys stood up, and that was one of the biggest things today. They had to deal with the first ball in, deal with lots of corners and crosses and put their bodies on the line.”
“I think a couple of times Josh got caught out or pulled off a save and someone got in a block or threw a foot in and stopped them from being able to shoot. Defensively, all over the pitch, we stood up well and we grew into the game.”
“It was maybe the hardest match we’ve played in terms of the constant long-ball. That’s not being disrespectful to Gillingham - that’s their game and how they want to play and good luck to them - and we have to compete against that, and I think we learnt a lot. It’s not about the result, it’s about the performance and it’s a learning curve, and they learnt a lot out of that game,” he reflected.
One of those players to have discovered a lot from the performance was goalscorer Batlokwa. Duncan replaced the midfielder with fellow first-year scholar Harry Phillips at half-time, and he believes there is more to come from both young midfield talents.
“I think Renei’s general play is better than we saw. Maybe with the occasion he wanted to do well and that led to him making a few poor decisions but, in the link-up for the goal, he had quite a bit to do; he won the ball back for us and then linked it up and got a good finish.”
“It was nice for him because we’ve said he’s got to add goals, but he’s also got to learn that it’s a bit different. The game’s hurly-burly and he should’ve put his foot on the ball a bit more at times, but he was trying to play one-touch and giving the ball away when we had numbers forward.”
“That’s why I took him off at half-time and put Harry Phillips on, but then Harry did the same sort of thing. They’re both very technical footballers, and tactically they are getting better. They both have a lot to offer this football club, and it was great for Renei to score because that’s something we’ve asked of him, but we still want to see a bit more.”