The Nottingham Forest wing-back has attracted the attention of a host of top clubs, including Bayern Munich, with his fine form this season
Trent Alexander-Arnold may be out, but there will still be a swashbuckling right-back on display at the City Ground this weekend.
Nottingham Forest fans wouldn’t swap Djed Spence for anyone right now, and no wonder.
The 21-year-old, on loan from Middlesbrough, has been attracting the attention of a host of top clubs with his performances in the Championship and, on Sunday, he will get the chance to test himself on the big stage, as Forest take on Liverpool in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
Spence has already made his mark against Premier League opposition this season.
Both Arsenal and Leicester found the Londoner too hot to handle – Gabriel Martinelli named him as his toughest opponent of the season – and he warmed up for Jurgen Klopp’s side by scoring Forest’s first goal, a 25-yard screamer, in their 3-1 win over Queens Park Rangers on Wednesday night.
His fan club is growing by the week. Bayern Munich are among those to have expressed an interest, while Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United have all received glowing reports.
Middlesbrough expect to sell this summer with Spence, whose contract expires in 2024, already valued at more than £15 million ($20m).
Some, indeed, believe that to be a conservative estimate.
“He could get sold for £25m ($33m),” said Jonathan Woodgate, Spence’s former boss at Boro, after that eye-catching display against Leicester last month. “He’s that good.”
Ian Wright would certainly agree. The Arsenal legend was so impressed by Spence’s performance against the Gunners in January that he sought him out afterwards to offer some advice and encouragement.
“I said Listen, my friend, youre on loan from Middlesbrough and I dont know whats happened there, because if you cant get into the Middlesbrough side, I dont know whats wrong, so I need to know the full story,” Wright revealed.
“But let me say, that was one of the best right-back performances I have seen for a very long time.”
He added: “If we are talking about right-backs performing at an unbelievable level, were talking about Reece James and Trent, but I have not seen a combative, technical, swashbuckling performance like that for a very long time.
“I said to him, in all seriousness, That level we saw there? You should be in the Premier League. Simple as that.”
Born in London to Jamaican parents, Spence was first spotted playing for Junior Elite, the Beckenham-based grassroots club which helped launch the careers of Wilfried Zaha, Victor Moses, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Emile Smith Rowe, among others.
Smith Rowe, indeed, is a former team-mate but while he would move to Arsenal, Spence would join Fulham, leaving for Middlesbrough shortly before his 18th birthday in 2018.
It was Tony Pulis, the former Stoke and West Brom boss, who gave him his professional debut, but it was under first Woodgate, and later Neil Warnock, that he emerged as a regular at the Riverside Stadium.
Woodgate loved him, but Warnock’s relationship with him was a little more complicated.
Spence, he said, had “all the tools”, but he questioned his mentality and dedication. He let him join Forest on loan, he said, because “he needed to sort himself out”.
“He could be playing at a top club in England or in non-league in five years,” Warnock added. “I don’t know which one.”
We have a better idea now, that’s for sure. Spence has flourished at Forest, where his role as a wing-back accentuates his physical and technical gifts.
“I think Steve Cooper is the manager for him, to be honest,” says Warnock. “He has let him go forward more often, which suits his game.”
Cooper, a former U18s coach at Liverpool, is certainly a fan.
“I am very fond of him,” he told The Athletic recently. “He is a sensible lad and you can tell that he cares a lot about the next game, about Forest – he loves Forest. You can see it in the way he plays.
“He is laid-back. That is probably the right description of him. But when you get engaged in a conversation with him, he is a thoughtful character.
“We love having him and our job is to keep trying to get the best out of him.”
On Friday, Spence earned his first call-up to the England U21 squad, reward for his consistent, and eye-catching Forest performances.
There, he will meet up with the likes of Harvey Elliott and Curtis Jones, and on Sunday he will be able to introduce himself personally.
Liverpool, of course, arrive as favourites, and with an unprecedented ‘quadruple’ in their sights, but Forest will relish the chance to get stuck into their famous visitors.