Academy Manager feels Blues are set up well, ahead of the Merit League One season.
Academy Manager Ricky Duncan believes that Southend United’s 2-2 draw with Watford U18s sets them up well for the upcoming Merit League One campaign.
Blues picked up a point in their final Football League Youth Alliance South East Conference fixture to pip the Hornets to fifth place, although the pair will meet again after both finished in the top half of the 13-team table. Now they will both get the opportunity to test themselves against the leading Category Three Academies from the south of the county.
Duncan began by assessing the club’s most recent fixture: “I didn’t think we were in the game for the first 30 minutes. We gave them too much credit after we lost quite heavily at their place. That was something that the boys wanted to put right, and maybe they put too much emphasis on it. We gave them a little bit too much room to play their football, even though we stayed in the game,” he said, referencing an earlier 7-2 defeat.
“After the first 30 minutes, I thought we started to get to grips with them and then, at half-time, we had a good chat about what we needed to do and where we could exploit them and, in the second half, we did that really, really well. I think we were unlucky to come away with a draw today; I think we deserved a win on the whole.
“Watford got lucky when they scored with the ball coming off Sonny Coutts’ head and it went in the top corner but, other than that, I don’t remember them causing us any real problems. We did really well in the second half, and we should’ve scored some more goals. We do create a lot of chances and, over the last two games, with the conditions of the pitches that we’ve played on, the boys have done very well,” he added.
The former Cambridge United coach was equally pleased to see the spirit and determination in the camp after Blues fell behind to Michael Folivi’s strike just before the half-hour mark. Freddie Gard equalised ahead of the interval and Brandon Scott edged the teenage Shrimpers in front soon after the break before Dennon Lewis’ leveller.
“When we went 1-0 down, we could’ve gone, but the boys are showing that they’ve got a little bit more about them. We started to use the ball a lot better as the game went on and we got used to the pitch, even though it’s our own. We realised where we could exploit them, and I thought we did that tremendously in the second half.
“Freddie Gard and Macauley Keating in the middle started to use the ball better, getting into the space, and then Brandon Scott and Nico Cotton got into the game and that really caused them problems. At the back, Sonny Coutts and Abdul Salami were fantastic. We had a good solid base in the second half, and I think that puts us in good stead going into the Merit League now.”
Southend will come up against a new challenge once the second half of the season gets underway on February 7th, but Duncan is relishing the opportunity to try and bring the best out of the squad as springtime approaches: “I think the Merit League is going to be really good. We’ve had a good league, where we’ve played everyone home and away, which has been nice, and we’ve obtained our target of getting into the top Merit League division,” he said.
“We’ve now got five new teams that we never play in Bournemouth, Exeter, Plymouth, Portsmouth and Swindon, plus we play the likes of Barnet and Watford again, but we’re all going to get a different game. Instead of having a dead end to the season, we’ve now got another little challenge for the boys.
“We’ve got eleven games against the top teams, and that’s another challenge to rise to. That’s good for the boys because it gives them something to fight for. We’re looking forward to it; it’s good for the players and it’s good for us. Hopefully we can do ourselves justice.”
And, as the Academy boss looked forward to trying to continue the impressive run of results his squad have collected in recent months, he singled out the performance of centre-half Abdul Salami for special praise: “We want to win every game, there’s no two ways about it, but it’s no good us winning games and not having the players on the pitch.
“Today we’ve seen Abdul Salami come on so much, so we’re still talking about the individual players and how they are progressing. These eleven games will give us more time to work on them; we have eleven really competitive football matches so we can really test them out and stretch them individually.
“That’s what it’s all about; we want to keep stretching the players and asking questions of them. Obviously we want to win, but it’s about the development, individually, of the players and, if they can put it together as a team, then fine. We had four of five individuals today who I think did really well for us, and that’s all I’m interested in.
“Abdul has come on massively over the course of the season; he’s really working hard and he’s taking that into the games. I want to give a special mention to him; at the start of the season he had to improve technically with his passing and quality on the ball, and we knew that.
“He’s quite an athletic boy with good pace and he’s not frightened to put his foot in, but he comes in every day and he’s on the wall at 8:00am every morning for an hour. I don’t think he’s missed one day, and I think that’s starting to show.
“The way he has worked at it, his passing has got better and his touch has improved and that’s starting to show in the games. If he keeps putting that effort in, we could have another player on our hands in a year’s time. Against Watford, against a really good side with good movement, he read the game better as well, so I think he deserves the praise,” he concluded.