TOM Clifford is determined to stay in and around the Southend United first team this season.

The 20-year-old defender made his debut as a late substitute against Oxford United last December.

But the youngster, who has been with Blues since the age of eight, is keen to build on his solitary senior display for the Shrimpers.

“My hopes for the season is to just be with the first team as much as I can,” said Clifford.

“Hopefully I’ll be involved more than I was last year and that’s definitely what I’m working towards.”

Clifford, who has earned himself a reputation as a set-piece specialist in the Shrimpers youth ranks, was also an unused substitute away at Coventry City last term.

And right now he is the only available left-back in the Southend squad.

Blues opted to release Stephen Hendrie at the end of last season while Ben Coker chose to leave after his contract expired.

Sam Hart has now returned to his parent club Blackburn Rovers after his loan deal expired while Harry Kyprianou remains sidelined with an Achilles injury.

As a result, Clifford has been handed more of an opportunity to impress boss Kevin Bond during pre-season.

And the defender is enjoying being around his more senior team-mates.

“I’ve enjoyed it all so far because it’s where I want to be,” said Clifford.

“I’m learning new things and I’m also getting fitter and fitter every day so it is doing me good.

“I’m trying every day to do the best I can, just like everyone else.”

But Clifford has also been finding the training tough.

“Pre-season so far has been good but it’s been tough too,” said the teenager.

“Obviously you have a period of time off where you’re not training everyday and then you’re back in but I’ve been enjoying it.”

And Clifford also relished lining up against Reading in a behind closed doors friendly at the weekend.

“The game against Reading was a tough one but it was a good game to be involved in,” said Clifford, who played the second 45 minutes in the 2-0 defeat against the Royals.

“We were playing against some really experienced quality players who are all trying to get as fit as they can, just like us!

“But it was a good game to be involved in.”

The Shrimpers are next in action at National League South side Billericay Town on Tuesday night.