John Ward hoping U’s youngsters make the grade next season

COLCHESTER United boss John Ward has urged his exciting crop of young players to follow the example of Tom Eastman as they attempt to force their way into first-team reckoning.

Eastman, 20, enjoyed an outstanding second half of the season at the heart of the U’s defence, and also chipped in with three goals after returning from a loan spell with Crawley Town.

Eastman joined the U’s last summer from Ipswich and initially struggled to break into Ward’s League One outfit but had made one of the two centre-back berths his own by the end of the season.

With one of the smaller budgets in the league, Ward will not be paying transfer fees this summer, and although he will be adding new faces from outside – such as Brentford’s Marcus Bean, who signed on Friday – he expects several of those pushing for places in his 18-man match-day squad to be products of the club’s under-21 team,

Alex Gilbey, Shaun Phillips, Ryan Melaugh, Drey Wright and Tofin Olufemi all penned professional deals at the end of the season and they make up a clutch of players that could be pushing next season.

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“I think the squad will be similar in numbers to last season, with a bigger back-up squad made up of the club’s younger players,” said Ward.

“The opportunity will be there for them, there are ten or 11 under-21 boys in the football club that are really inexperienced, but we managed to find Tom (Eastman) last summer and he ended up playing near to 30 games, which I don’t think was expected.

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“The return to seven substitutes will give experience on the bench to some of the younger players and I expect them to have a chance.

“Tom has to be their role-model. He stepped into the team at the age of 19 and he has received qualified recognition for his displays.

“But we have got to be careful how we manage the boys and how we work with them. Once we have got them into the first-team group it will be a case of careful management from myself and the coaching staff.

“But I won’t be afraid to play these players. I helped set-up the current youth structure at the football club so I am all for it.”

Ward added experienced midfielder Bean to his squad on Friday and also saw midfielder John-Joe O’Toole sign a new, two-year deal on Thursday.

Magnus Okuonghae, Lloyd James and Ben Williams have yet to sign new deals.

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