Djed Spence: Middlesbrough defender wins December's EFL Young Player of the Month award

Middlesbrough defender Djed Spence with the award and head coach Jonathan Woodgate
Middlesbrough defender Djed Spence has been given his chance by head coach Jonathan Woodgate (right)
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Professional football is littered with stories of promising players cast aside, some lost to the game forever in a wave of disappointment, disillusionment and despair.

Middlesbrough defender Djed Spence was determined not to be another statistic.

The 19-year-old was released by Fulham after his contract expired in the summer of 2018, just before his 18th birthday.

There was no panic, no fear. He was sure something would come along. Boro were that club and Spence took the gamble of moving his life from London to the north east of England.

Since then, the attack-minded wing-back has had to be patient, but December 2019 was the best month yet - a first-team breakthrough, five wins and two draws from seven appearances and the EFL's December Young Player of the Month award.

"I was strong-minded, and I had good people, my family around me, to support me," Spence told BBC Sport.

"It's good to come out of your comfort zone. It's different [up on Teesside] and I'm still learning about being away from home.

"I've got my own place, and that's it really. I don't do much else - football, home, football, home."

Dedication, hard work and patience

That focus and application has been key for the teenager in establishing himself at the Riverside.

He had barely trained with the first team when told he would be involved for the first time under against Charlton in December, but he impressed boss Jonathan Woodgate enough to retain his place. He has only missed one game since.

"[Woodgate] just said make sure you're ready, I played and we got the result we wanted," Spence continued. "It's a good feeling. There's a good team spirit and it's nice to be around.

"I feel like I've brought a spark to the team, but it's not just individual. It's the team, everyone works for each other and you can see that when we play.

"I keep life simple. Just focus, keep doing well - and even when you're doing well, you've got to strive for more."

Djed Spence celebrates his first Boro goal
Djed Spence's first Boro goal against Huddersfield was followed by an equally spectacular celebration

Youth given a chance

Since taking over at hometown club Boro in June, former England defender Woodgate has leaned heavily on the under-23s to plug the gaps left by injuries. Those initial 'stand-ins' have become key components of his squad.

The academy which once produced almost an entire Premier League line-up against Fulham in 2006, continues to churn out senior professionals in the shape of Lewis Wing, Marcus Tavernier and Hayden Coulson.

"There's a young group coming through," Spence said. "It's good to see younger players playing. It gives you confidence when there are other young players in the dressing room with you.

"It makes you feel like you are meant to be there, in and around it with the lads."

No time to be overawed

Djed Spence tussles with Dele Alli
Djed Spence more than held his own against Spurs stars such as Dele Alli, Son Heung-min and Lucas Moura in Sunday's 1-1 FA Cup draw

The FA Cup draw against Tottenham was the latest high point for Spence, who shone against top-level opponents.

It could be easy for a player who until last month had been predominantly playing age-group football, with just 68 first-team minutes for Boro under his belt, to have been fazed by the prospect.

However, the level-headed Londoner is just enjoying the ride, taking in the experience and savouring the opportunity.

"Sometimes when I am playing against [Lucas] Moura or Son [Heung-min] - those Premier League players - you don't really think about it and it doesn't hit you as much," he added.

"When you're playing you're just focusing - but then later, when you realise you're playing against good players, international players, it's a good feeling."