BEFORE signing for Southend United, Stuart O’Keefe turned down both Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest.

And, with the 18-year-old set to make his first ever FA Cup start at Gillingham tomorrow, he does not regret his decision.

The young midfielder was released by Ipswich Town after seven years at Portman Road.

But the length of the contract on offer made Roots Hall his next destination.

“I was with Ipswich from when I was nine to 16 and when I was released I could have gone to Aston Villa or Nottingham Forest,” recalled O’Keefe.

“They were offering me a year as a school-boy and I didn’t want that.

“If things hadn’t worked out then I would’ve been screwed because every other club would already have taken on their scholars.

“That’s why I was keen to come to Southend because they offered me a scholarship right away and I’m pleased I did.

“I have been around the first team quite a lot this season and that wouldn’t have happened that early at the other clubs.”

O’Keefe has made two substitute appearances for the first team this season and is now expected to replace the suspended Alan McCormack in the centre of the park at the Priestfield Stadium this weekend.

The teenager is also able to play on either flank but feels more at home in the middle.

“I do see myself as a central midfielder but to get more involved I’m happy to play anywhere,” said O’Keefe who has risen through the ranks at Roots Hall under the guidance of the club’s youth team manager Ricky Duncan.

“I would liked to have played a few more minutes this season if I’m being honest but hopefully I will get a chance tomorrow.

“With it being the FA Cup as well it would be brilliant because I think it’s the best cup competition in the world.”

O’Keefe’s introduction will not be the only change for Blues as they are also missing top goalscorer Lee Barnard who is serving a one match suspension.

He is expected to be replaced by the fit again Dougie Freedman with Damian Scannell back on the bench after recovering from an ankle injury.

Osei Sankofa (knee) is still out though and so is the on-loan Jean Yves M’Voto who now requires surgery on a hip injury which is likely to keep him sidelined until January.

l Southend United (from): Mildenhall, Francis, Grant, Barrett, Herd, Laurent, O’Keefe, Christophe, Moussa, Walker, Freedman, Scannell, Joyce, Whittaker, Asante and Okai.