At 2:00pm on December 7th 2019, the Middlesbrough fans refreshing twitter to see how their team would line up for the Championship matchup with Charlton Athletic were met with a name they had not seen in the starting XI before.
Starting at right-wing back for Jonathan Woodgate’s side was former Fulham youth player, and graduate from Boro’s academy, Djed Spence.
Just three hours later, he was the talk of the Riverside after putting in a mesmerising display of speed and skill which made all in the stadium sit up and take note.
Only three months after the emergence of fellow Rockliffe alumni Hayden Coulson, on the opposite flank, things looked very promising for Woodgate’s youthful Boro side, who – on that winters day – took their third victory of the season.
Spence under Warnock
Fast forward to the present, and we know that this was a small bright spark in what was ultimately a failed experiment with former centre half Woodgate at the helm of his boyhood club.
The influence of Spence has also tailed off following the departure of the coach, who would go on to take the reins at newly-relegated Bournemouth just months later.
Current Middlesbrough manager Neil Warnock has attempted to use Spence as much as he can, playing him all over the right – from right back to right winger – in an attempt to get the best out of the London-born flanker.
It became apparent, however, that Spence’s lack of defensive ability and know-how has limited the 20-year-old’s playing time as the season progressed.
As Warnock began to favour a four back formation – due to injuries to Anfernee Dijksteel, Dael Fry and Grant Hall earlier in the year – Spence could not play in his preferred wing back role and had to slot in either to a full back or winger position.
As well as his lack of awareness in defence, his lack of goalscoring and chance creating ability was seen in attack. The wing back role allowed Spence space to run at opponents and provides cover when defending.
The question of whether or not to sell Boro’s number 29 comes as interest from the England’s top tier is rife.
ESPN reported that Wolves were ‘leading the race’ to sign Spence last week, with £5 million the rumoured asking price.
The report, by James Olley, claims that Everton and Rangers are also keen on Boro’s wing back, while Tottenham were interested in 2020, but that seems to have ended following Jose Mourinho’s sacking.
Reaction to this news from fans on twitter ranged from “SOLD” and “Snap their hands off” to “Only £5m… £15m was banded about [recently]”
While fans may be eager to move off a player who has been, at best, inconsistent this year, it may be beneficial for Boro in the long run to keep Spence in the side, regardless of whether he fits into the manager’s plans.
Too often have Middlesbrough managers been allowed to cut players from their Boro squad who have gone on to bigger and better things at other clubs, while fans at the Riverside have been left to watch poorer players in their place – Patrick Bamford immediately springs to mind, who was sold to Leeds United while Rudy Gestede and Britt Assombalonga remained.
Neil Warnock will, in all likelihood, not be the Middlesbrough manager at this point next year. So why should Boro mortgage their future for a short term signing.
A counter argument for this point would be that we need to see what Warnock is like with money to spend. This is fair, but if Spence is sold and the money is used to bring in players such as Michael Smith from Rotherham and West Brom’s Kenneth Zohore, chairman Steve Gibson will have ageing assets – worth a lot less than Spence would be – on his hands for years after Warnock has returned to Cornwall.
Refrain from short term gain
The Middlesbrough transfer policy MUST me more long sighted.
For the club to keep challenging at the top end of the Championship -in the top 30 clubs in the country – we can’t keep mortgaging our future for one manager’s summer wishes.
The club took a major step back when this was allowed to happen following relegation in 2017, and again just 12 months later.
Ben Gibson, Adama Traore and Bamford were sold in the summer of 2018, for a combined £40 million, and they were replaced by Aden Flint, George Saville and Paddy McNair. When this happened it set the whole side back as Middlesbrough lost their captain, best player and the striker in best form at the end of the 17/18 season.
The hierarchy at Rockliffe allowed Tony Pulis to build the side in the way he wanted – less than a year after they did the same for Garry Monk – and he made a decent team a lot worse.
Continuity is so blatantly disregarded by the ‘powers that be’ on Teesside. And selling Spence to fund Warnock’s last summer window of his career would be criminal.