Southend United U18s kick-off their 2021/22 EFL Youth Alliance South East Conference campaign on Saturday morning with a home fixture against Gillingham at Boots & Laces.
The teenage Shrimpers won the Merit League Two title at the end of last season, having finished fourth in the South East Conference behind Peterborough United, Cambridge United and Luton Town.
Posh - who won that championship in each of the last two seasons - attained Category Two Academy status at the end of the 2020/21 campaign, and their place in the league has been taken by EFL newcomers Sutton United.
However, despite the experience gained towards the end of last term, Danny Heath believes the squad will need to be on their mettle from the outset against the Gills: "It’s something we’re looking forward to," he declared.
"The friendlies have now happened and the boys are fully focussed on the season ahead, and opponents don’t come much tougher than Gillingham. It’s going to be a tough game, it’s going to be a battle and we have to show both sides of the game, but this group have shown they can do that."
Blues faced a range of opponents during pre-season, kicking off against Essex Senior League club Woodford Town before participating in a tournament against West Ham United, Reading and Millwall.
After facing a college team from Aveley in their penultimate match, Millwall visited south-east Essex last weekend and Tayo Adedoja netted twice for Blues as they claimed a 2-2 draw against their Category Two opponents.
"I think the squad is prepared,” Heath confirmed. “They are ready. As a group they are gelling well and they’ve got a great togetherness. They are like a family; they probably spend more time here than they spend at home.
"I think we are in good shape. We’ve worked on quite a few variations in formation during pre-season. I feel the squad have got the understanding and the adaptability that, whatever "It was good to see the U23s watching last weekend after their training session, so there’s a real togetherness within the club from the first team all the way down, which will hopefully stand us in good stead for the season."
Having tasted success at the end of last season, Heath believes the squad are hungry to get their hands on some silverware again. However, as an Academy, the target remains producing the next Tom Clifford, Terrell Egbri or Matt Rush to push their way into the senior environment.
"They have set a target of winning the league. Our target as Academy staff is to see them, as often as they can, get into the U23s and then, from there, earn a professional contract,” he said.
"Their own target is to win the league, and I think they’ve got the potential to do that. On their day, if they perform to the best of their ability and eradicate the silly goals we have been giving away, they’ve got every opportunity of doing that.”
The full U18s fixture list can be located by filtering to the U18 team here: https://www.southendunited.co.uk/matches/fixtures/