SOUTHEND United’s under 18 side kicked off their season with a 1-1 draw against Gillingham on Saturday.

Midfielder Renei Batlokwa gave Blues the lead with his first competitive goal for the club before the Gills hit back after the break to secure a share of the spoils at Boots & Laces.

Batlokwa’s goal came after 15 minutes when he spun onto the ball and quickly offloaded to Norman Wabo, who found his team-mate with a return pass.

There was an element of fortune when Batlokwa’s next pass ricocheted off a defender back into his path, but he showed real composure to stroke the ball into an unguarded net.

That should have been the signal for Southend to push on but instead Gillingham pressed hard and made it difficult for their hosts.

They moved the ball quickly down the pitch, and within minutes of the opening goal, Blues’ goalkeeper Josh Bexon was called upon to grab hold of a close-range header from a left-wing cross.

When Bexon was beaten in the 26th minute he found his skipper, Ross Johnson, perfectly positioned besides the left-hand upright to stab a header from a corner off the goal-line.

Gillingham continued to push on and were awarded a penalty five minutes before half-time when a right-wing cross was adjudged to have struck Harry Norman’s arm as he attempted to cut it out.

However, Bexon guessed correctly to maintain his side’s advantage by pushing the ball out to his left, and Johnson again was involved in clearing the follow-up to safety.

Bexon was called into action once again in the final minute of the first half when he gathered a deflected strike from yet another flag-kick but he was powerless to stop the Gills from equalising five minutes into the second period.

The shot-stopper’s goal-kick was won in midfield by a visiting defender, and an attacker latched onto the ball as it travelled down the centre of the pitch before arrowing his finish into the bottom left-hand corner.

After the break, Wabo raced clear of the defence down the right-hand side, but his low strike was well saved by the goalkeeper.

Either team could still have claimed victory at this stage, but it was Southend who went closest six minutes from the end when Daniel Matsuzaka met Nico Cotton’s free-kick at the back post.

But the danger passed with no-one able to anticipate the path of the downward header, and the two teams had to be content with a share of the spoils from the first fixture of the season.

Southend United: Bexon, Johnson, Williams, Norman, Matsuzaka, Salami, Scott (Bedford 75), Batlokwa (Phillips 46), Wabo (Burton 80), Gard, Cotton.