Southend United U18's coach Danny Heath is looking forward to his team’s first competitive match for six months when they line up away to Leyton Orient on Saturday morning in the EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference.
Blues’ youth team last took to the field on 10th March against Peterborough United in Merit League One before the suspension of football due to the coronavirus pandemic led to the truncation of the 2019/20 campaign.
Heath has confirmed that the squad have been kept engaged over the summer: “Covid-19 was something we couldn’t control,” he said. “It wasn’t nice, but we kept in contact with the players via regular Zoom calls and WhatsApp updates.”
“The boys had a programme to do away from the club and we gave them practical tasks to do based on their units. We haven’t used it as an excuse.”
Heath’s charges returned to training alongside the first-team squad at the beginning of August, and the performances in pre-season have been encouraging.
The youth team coach revealed: “We beat Fulham 2-0 in our first match and the game against Charlton was really good. We took the lead in the first minute and could’ve been four or five up before they went on to win 2-1, but that was a positive performance.”
“Colchester then came to us with a strong side of second and third years. We had six second-years unavailable and we called in some U15s and U16s who hadn’t even started training, so it was good to draw 1-1,” Heath said.
The team then travelled to the Five Lakes resort to forge bonds ahead of the new campaign, with the eight new first-year scholars joining the squad for a week away.
“When we first started training we were in groups of five or six, so we’ve been in every day and as soon as we could we were setting up double-sessions, doing tactical work, working in units, looking at different formations and what we do in and out of possession,” Heath explained.
“We feel we are ready to start. Five Lakes was brilliant. We’re here to develop footballers, but the week helped the boys develop as people. They trained three times some days and they conducted themselves superbly around the hotel.”
“Our strength and conditioning coach, Cat Malcolm, organised an SAS-style wake-up call one morning at 5 in the morning. I think she thought she was our version of Ant Middleton! The boys weren’t too impressed when they were awoken and had to get ready in 25-30 minutes, but in the end, they really enjoyed it.”
Now the preparation has been completed, Heath has been able to turn his focus to the start of an 18-match league programme scheduled to take place between 12th September and 13th February.
“We have spoken to the boys. The ultimate aim is to produce players for the first-team and to play at first-team level, and the boys have set their own individual targets for the season,” Heath said.
“As a group, we want to start the season better than last year. We have a target for where we want to be at halfway, after 9 games, and then at the end of the season, and also for the cup competitions. The boys are ready to go.”