SOUTHEND United’s academy manager Ricky Duncan feels the under 23 side will soon become the most important team in the Shrimpers’ youth ranks.

The squad - who are managed by Blues legend Kevin Maher - provide regular fixtures for those between the youth ranks and the first team.

And Duncan believes it is incredibly important for the future of the club.

“The 23s is going in the right direction and it’s showing it’s worth,” said Duncan.

“We have young lads going up we need to look at and it’s a team we need to develop because going forward it will be the most important area eventually in terms of developing our players.

“It’s still only quite new for us but we have to keep investing in it.

“It’s hard for people to see that because they can think that at 21, 22 or 23 you should already be in the first team but it’s not that easy anymore so the23s is vital for us moving forward.”

And next season’s under 23 squad will be bolstered by a number of new youngsters as all of the Shrimpers’ second year scholars have been kept on.

The youngsters helped Blues win the EFL Youth Alliance Merit League One at the end of last season and Duncan has again opted to keep them all for their third year.

“I like them to have three year deals,” explained Duncan.

“We make our scholarships three years and that then supports the 23s too.

“If you get let go in your second year then we believe there really is no future for you here but it’s very rare that happens.

“The boys have had their options taken up this year and hey will make us stronger because those boys have just won the league.

“The squad will be topped up by the stronger players in the 23s when we make those decisions too.”

Those players will be looking to break through into Blues’ first team next term and Duncan is also keen to help that happen by securing more funding for the academy.

“We’re desperate for an academy sponsor,” said Duncan.

“The Shrimpers Trust have been great for us sponsoring the youth team section but we have the eight to 16s who need sponsoring and the 23s too. We have the Blues Lottery which is great and Mick Maddocks has been brilliant with that. That needs to grow and if people want to help the academy then the lottery is a good thing to do.”