Liam StokerComment

Southend United. The kids are alright

Liam StokerComment

We've looked at academy football recently at both Boca and Barcelona.  No need to justify either of those, but Southend United?  Read this. Welcome to IBWM Liam Stoker.

Ricky Duncan stares intently. Barking instructions from the technical area, his side have come from behind in a cup tie played away from home against lofty opposition. As the third is touched in from close range, raucous celebrations ensue. Southend United’s Under-18s are through to the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup.

Admittedly, that introduction may have been anti-climatic. Enthusiasm for youth football within the fourth tier of the English professional game isn’t a common trait, yet the success of Southend’s Centre of Excellence team despite perilous circumstances is a more than worthy tale. Against all odds, Duncan had put Southend on football’s radar.

The terms “Southend United” and “cash-strapped” are almost synonymous. Like a drunken and lonely male at 3am on a Saturday night, the club have openly flirted with administration more times than I’d like to witness. Perversely saved by the supermarket-chain that is desperate to evict them, it’s safe to say that life beside the seaside hasn’t been so joyous for football supporters of a south-Essex persuasion as of late.

Those familiar with the club will tell you that, unfortunately, this isn’t anything new. Almost a decade ago, Southend United came within minutes of extinction. Property development company Martin Dawn, and a certain ex-Olympic Bobsledder named Ron Martin, sold the club’s Roots Hall home to secure Southend’s survival and immediately commenced cost-cutting measures. One of those measures was the closure of the club’s faltering youth development programme.

At the time our youth programme, whilst always important in my mind, was a secondary issue relative to the Club’s finances,” said Ron Martin, now chairman of the club.

Martin has his critics. Under his tenure, Southend has witnessed great development, yet also great destruction. Successive promotions under Steve Tilson propelled them to the Championship following a thirteen-year exodus before the veritable house of cards came tumbling down on the winds of unpaid tax-bills and wages. Southend fell as quickly as they rose, relegated to the basement division last season.

Acting silently in the background, however, was Ricky Duncan, brought back to the club from Conference-bound Cambridge. While Freddy Eastwood and Steve Tilson stole the headlines, Duncan sought to rejuvenate a youth policy that had failed to produce a single player worthy of note for nigh on thirty years.

“When I arrived I think the club were at a stage where they needed to choose whether to go ahead and push forward with the youth team or whether to just stop it all together. They were just going through the motions and helping nobody.”

Since his return to the Southend, Duncan has adopted methods that have enhanced development attitudes. No longer are players callously cast aside at early ages, merely reallocated into “shadow squads”, and the emergence of the “developmental contract” has ensured that the “almost-there” players are kept. The latter point is something of a precious matter for Southend, having dumped Michael Kightly just before his rise to Premier League semi-stardom.

It’s alleged that, during his time at Southend, coaches expressed concerns about Kightly’s stamina and slight build. After his release, Kightly joined Grays who found that most mornings he wouldn’t eat breakfast. A mere few months after forcing him onto a stricter diet, Kightly had earned the “Non-league Ryan Giggs” moniker and was subsequently carted off to Wolves for a substantial sum.

However, a fresh approach, instilled into the club by Duncan and his staff, is now paying dividends. Strikers James Lawson and Charles Adameno made fleeting senior appearances for the Blues before moving on, and midfielder Franck Moussa progressed to become a starter on the left-flank. Full-back Johnny Herd also graduated, but found his chances limited under both Steve Tilson and Paul Sturrock.

During the 2008/09 season, Southend United were able to field at least one product of its Centre of Excellence in 55% of matches and two or more in 21%, a rapid improvement for the club that seldom produced any talent worth writing home about.

But what, ultimately, is the aim of a successful development programme? Southend’s protégés won the Puma Youth Alliance in 2008, but that’s an accolade Duncan isn’t distracted by. “You could win the Youth Alliance League, win every cup in youth football and go a season unbeaten, but if you’re not producing talent good enough for the senior team, then what’s the point?”

The life of a football supporter is, unfortunately, never positive for long. With a new stadium project close to fruition and a club legend at the reins, the good ship Shrimper was being beckoned into a new age. Tax, player wages and relegation from the Championship soon cast more troublesome seas into the club’s direction. Steve Tilson was thrown overboard, unpaid players deserted like the proverbial rats and all that remained, for at least three months, were the waifs and strays chained to the awnings.

Quietly plugging away in the hull, however, remained Ricky Duncan. Despite player wages and the dreaded tax man remaining unpaid for weeks, often months on end, finance continued to filter into the youth programme and Duncan spent wisely. Talented prospects such as Medi Abalimba (Derby County), Femi Orenuga (Everton) and Michael Ngoo (Liverpool) were sold, whilst the club harboured strong links with Premier League clubs operating in nearby waters.

“There are a few of the Premiership clubs acting within the area, Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool for example. It’s impossible to beat them, so it’s best to work with them and communicate with them, which has proved to be beneficial for us in the long run,” said Duncan, adding: “The links with these clubs are coming to the fore now, but it’s not just about the loaning of players. The links promote the club throughout Europe and we share coaching techniques and scouting networks.”

This continual support, despite the desperately perilous situation of the football club, is now paying off. The club’s Centre of Excellence is now considered one of the top five in the country operating outside the Academy Status remit, and Southend are an increasingly attractive destination for young footballers. When Arsenal spoke to goalkeeper Daniel Bentley, he was advised of Southend’s suitability. When Hicham Abdellah, he of “Football’s Next Star” semi-fame, was looking for a club, Southend’s name propped up. And when a host of clubs sought the signature of Lyle Della-Verde, a little winger with a huge reputation, Southend United jumped to front of the queue.

The current Under-18 squad assembled by Duncan is in danger of usurping the Puma Alliance winning team of 2008. Through to the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup, they travel to Anfield to face Liverpool on Valentine’s Day. A victory there and they encounter one of Newcastle or Manchester United on home turf.

Importantly for the Seaside club, another cycle of youth development looks to be as promising as the previous. 18 year old central midfielder and relative of Merker-in-chief Rio, Kane Ferdinand burst into the senior side in January and made himself an integral element of the team before earning a Republic of Ireland U19 call-up. Full-back Anthony Furlonge has tempted Manchester City’s omniscient scouting network and rarely a game goes by when a scout hasn’t travelled to the Essex coast for a glimpse of Della-Verde.

In truth, the success of Duncan’s youth charges has been a welcome distraction from a thoroughly disheartening period of discontent for Blues fans. The never-ending relocation saga shows no signs of abating and, at least for the time being, Sainsbury’s are subsiding the club’s losses.

But what next for Duncan? Chairman Ron Martin has spoken of Academy status, declaring that, “The next and most vital step in our Youth Development Programme is to achieve academy status which will be obtained in conjunction with the new stadium plans,” and Duncan himself admits that this is the logical step forward.

Whatever awaits Southend United in the future, and history dictates it really could be anything; the good money is on that Duncan will have some say in the matter. Until then, you’ll find him spending Valentines evening imploring the hugely prodigious side he has assembled on a whim, to produce one further Cup shock.

You can read more from Liam by visiting Tiki-Taka Football