SOUTHEND United’s head of academy Ricky Duncan believes the Shrimpers’ youth set up is stronger than it has ever been before.

Seventeen players who had emerged through the youth ranks at Roots Hall were called upon for Blues’ first team last term.

But Duncan is confident more young talent will soon follow in their foot-steps.

“We improve every year and we’ve really pushed on in these last four years so the academy is now stronger than it has ever been during my 16 or 17 seasons here,” said Duncan.

“As an academy we’ve stepped up again and we’re a cat two club in all but name really.

“I know we speak about it a lot and we all know why we aren’t a cat two club at the moment but hopefully in a few years that can be resolved.

“As a cat three we’re up there and I’m really pleased with it because we have so many players coming through.

“We’ve really stepped things up.”

The Shrimpers now have 130 players on their youth books between the age of eight and 16.

And Duncan feels many of them will go on to make a name for themselves including the new batch of Blues’ scholars.

“We have 11 new scholars and the 14, 15s and 16 are all so strong,” said Duncan.

“I’ve already offered five of the 14s scholarships and three or four of the 15s.

“Some of the 16s were in the 18s for most of the season so we’re very solid for the next three seasons.

“We have some exciting young players coming through and we’re being watched constantly too so it’s an exciting time.”

The Shrimpers’ under 18 side showed their talent by winning the EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One this term.

But Duncan is more focused on bringing players through.

“It’s a really tough league to win so that’s a real credit to the players, Dave Huzzey and everyone who works within that age-group,” said Duncan.

“Dave has done a great job and we have some excellent young players in that age group.

“But I’d give up winning the league for two of them getting pro contracts and playing in the first team.

“It’s all about becoming a professional footballer but as staff we get more from seeing someone like Charlie Kelman moving on to play for the first team and what we want most is for others to now follow in his foot-steps.”