The Meteoric Rise of Djed Spence

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They say you should never buy a player off the back of a World Cup. The theory is that just because they starred for a month, there is no guarantee they can perform consistency at such a level. The way Nottingham Forest’s right-back Djed Spence, on loan from Middlesbrough, has shot to fame this season during Forest’s run to the FA Cup quarter-finals is a little different.

Spence grabbed the world’s attention with his lung-busting runs up and down the line as Steve Cooper’s in-form side knocked Premier League duo Arsenal and holders Leicester City out of the competition. Spence was unstinting in the ground he covered, and offered expert delivery. He popped up to grab the fourth goal for himself in the Leicester City hammering. That felt like the final confirmation, if there was ever any doubt, that the 21-year-old is set for quite a career — not to mention confirmation that Middlesbrough were mad to let him out on loan.

Forest are chasing Bournemouth all the way in a late push for automatic promotion. Spence’s full-time employees Boro are in seventh, unlikely to make the playoffs. And this is why Spence is not a flash in the pan, why he’s forging a career rather than enjoying a wild World Cup-style month of magic before sinking back into mediocrity. Spence has been superb throughout the Championship season. Along with teammate Ryan Yates in midfield, he is one of two Forest players named last month in the Championship Team of the Season. One-time England striker Dominic Solanke and Championship goalscoring record-breaker Aleksandar Mitrović are the front two in that team. Some company for Spence to be in.

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Middlesbrough will be desperate for Spence to return to Rockliffe Park come the summer. Nottingham Forest, meanwhile, are surely aware that if they miss out on promotion to the Premier League, they’re about as likely to sign Spence on a permanent deal as they are to qualify for the Champions League.

After all, some of the biggest clubs in European football have been circling, and there is a sense in which it won’t be long before one manages to get its hands on the England U21 international. Bayern Munich are huge admirers, quite a compliment considering their opposite flank is manned by the enigmatic and quite brilliant Canadian, Alphonso Davies. North London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham have both had problems at right-back this term, and both are said to be interested.

Chelsea and Liverpool are also tracking his progress, as well as some of Spain’s most successful clubs, according to reports. A recent story from Germany suggested that Spence is open to a move abroad, but that he wants to play for Manchester United one day. Considering Diogo Dalot and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are the Red Devils’ nominal right-backs at present, perhaps that isn’t so far-fetched…

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Spence is the latest off the conveyor belt in terms of swaggering young English right-backs. England senior manager Gareth Southgate has barely had the chance to test out some of the younger stars such as Tino Livramento, Tariq Lamptey, Max Aarons and the recently-capped Kyle Walker-Peters. The presence of Kyle Walker, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece James and Kieran Trippier show why.

Yet Spence, with no previous experience in the England youth teams, was brought in to the England U21s fold in March. He made his debut as a substitute against Albania in a 3–0 Euro qualifying win.

At a press conference, manager Lee Carsley spoke to about why he selected Spence. It was clear that despite the fact Carsley has similar right-back competition to Southgate, he is excited by what Spence can bring to the U21s going forward.

He said: “It was a real achievement for Djed to get in the squad, when you look at the full-backs that he’s up against — Tariq, Tino, Ben Johnson. So it was always a case of making sure Djed’s had a good experience this week. I’ve watched him in a lot of games at Forest. I’ve spoken to Steve Cooper about what he’s like off the pitch as well as on the pitch. I’ve enjoyed working with Djed. He’s a nice guy, very positive, quite a quiet, unassuming guy, but determined to improve his game. It’s been good for him to look around the squad and gauge where he fits in and maybe what he needs to work at.”

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Carsley gave a rundown of Spence’s best tactical attributes, saying: “He’s very athletic. He’s excellent at dribbling. Obviously he scored a good goal the other day [against QPR]. I’ve seen him create goals. I spoke to him on the training pitch. It’s great scoring goals, it’s great creating goals. But ultimately you’re there to block shots, block crosses, and be good defensively. That’s a part of the game he knows is important to England and Forest. He’s got eye-catching attributes with his athleticism and the way he can dribble out of trouble and drive and then have that creative side of his game. I’ve been impressed with him.

“We’ve got some outstanding full-backs with lots of different attributes. Different profiles: some are excellent are attacking and need to be better at defending, and some are the opposite. I think it’s testament to the academy system.”

Djed Spence has caught the eye of the high and mighty of football this season. His job now is to make sure they stay watching. Not least because it feels like every club you’ve ever heard of wants his signature. And why wouldn’t they?

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