After stalling at Spurs, can Spence get his career back on track?

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Djed Spence joined Tottenham Hotspur in July 2022 as one of the most promising young defenders in English football. Eighteen months later, the 23-year-old is facing a fight to salvage his career at the highest level.

Spurs fought off competition from a number of clubs to sign Spence for a deal worth up to £19 million after the right-back excelled at Nottingham Forest on loan from parent club Middlesbrough. Forest achieved promotion back to the Premier League for the first time in 23 years and Spence was voted into both the EFL's and PFA's Team of the Season for his 39 league appearances, in addition to a starring role as Steve Cooper's side dumped Arsenal, Leicester City and Huddersfield Town out of the FA Cup before losing narrowly to Liverpool in the quarterfinals.

In signing Spence -- quick, direct and purposeful in the final third -- Spurs appeared to have snapped up a dynamic full-back perfectly suited to the demands of the modern game. Yet Spence would go on to make just six substitute appearances totalling 43 minutes before being sent out on loan, firstly to Rennes and later to Leeds United. The latter spell was abruptly cut short this month, leaving him in the wilderness.

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Sources told ESPN that Tottenham boss Ange Postecoglou sent Spence to train with the under-21s and the club were willing to listen to permanent offers to cut their losses on a player now having to prove he can still realise his considerable potential.

Spence's former manager at Middlesbrough, Neil Warnock, once said Spence was either destined for "Premier League or non-league" amid concerns about his hunger to reach the top. Last week, Spence joined Genoa on another short-term loan deal in what represents a crossroads in his career.

How did it come to this? Can he get his once-promising career back on an upward trajectory?

Sources have told ESPN that part of the deal which took Spence to Tottenham including a potential £2.5m in add-ons relating to future involvement with the England national team. Spence had made his England under-21 debut in March 2022 -- as a substitute in a 3-0 win over Albania -- to continue the dramatic upward trajectory that triggered interest from a host of clubs across Europe.

Borussia Dortmund, AS Roma, Brentford, West Ham United and Forest were among a number of clubs interested in Spence, who was given an extra week's holiday in the summer of 2022 as Middlesbrough negotiated the best possible fee. Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Chelsea were also in touch with his representatives although they remained in the background as teams began to make offers.

Sources have told ESPN that Spurs head coach Antonio Conte spoke with Spence directly during negotiations in an effort to convince him to join Tottenham. This was a point which would lead to frustration in the player's camp later on when the Italian would pointedly -- and repeatedly -- refer to Spence as a "club signing."

It is perhaps a sign of the wider confusion at the top of the club back then. While Conte wanted to sign experienced professionals able to help immediately -- the recruitment of veteran Ivan Perisic earlier in that window is a prime example -- Spurs wanted to continue with their longstanding policy of signing younger players with potential and develop them in north London. Spence was to some extent caught in the crossfire of this power battle but regardless, it is not uncommon for Tottenham to tell prospective new signings that they have to play their way into the squad.

Spurs were seen as a good fit for Spence given their track record for giving young players a chance and his route into the first team seemed well signposted given question marks over the quality of the club's other two right-backs: Emerson Royal and Matt Doherty. Yet Conte quickly decided Spence was not ready for first-team football and with each passing week he was left out of the matchday squad altogether, the "club signing" comment felt increasingly barbed.

Sources have told ESPN that Conte did not provide much specific instruction to Spence on how he could improve or what he needed to do to break into the team. Perhaps this is partly why he prefers working with senior players -- they often know instinctively.

Spence needed guidance and didn't get it. Yet multiple training ground sources suggested to ESPN that he did not react in the best way. Questions began to grow about his attitude and off-field activity. On several occasions he was either late for training or would turn up for a session with barely a few minutes to spare. Some questioned his work ethic and by the time January 2023 came around, Spence had not started a single game, making only six substitute appearances. In four of those games, he was introduced in the 88th or 89th minute.

Sources have told ESPN that Spence lived next door to Gretar Steinsson, who began work as Tottenham's performance director in the same month the defender signed for Spurs. Steinsson became aware of loud music regularly coming from Spence's house late at night and sources have told ESPN that internally the club began to harbour concerns about his attitude and commitment to making the most of his career.

A view was formed that Spence should go out on loan to get back on track. Around a fortnight into the January window, Ligue 1 club Rennes made an offer to take Spence. Sources have told ESPN that Spence rejected the move. As the month wore on, it became increasingly clear the club were targeting another right-back and on deadline day, Spurs completed a deal worth €45m to sign Pedro Porro from Sporting Lisbon on loan with an obligation to make the deal permanent.

Suddenly, Spence's short-term and long-term future at Spurs looked uncertain. On the same day Porro's arrival was confirmed, Spence went to Rennes. Sources have told ESPN that Atletico Madrid had expressed an interest, but Spence believed he had a better chance of playing regularly in France.

Spence started well in France. Rennes fans gave him a standing ovation at the end of his 84-minute debut in their 3-1 defeat to Lille. He played in both legs of the club's Europa League exit to Shakhtar Donetsk but performances dipped and by April he had fallen out of the team -- a source has told ESPN that he had a disagreement with manager Bruno Genesio. Spence's loan was cut short in early May by injury.

Back at Spurs, Conte had been sacked and after a disappointing end to the season under two interim coaches -- Cristian Stellini and Ryan Mason -- Ange Postecoglou was appointed as the club's new head coach. Sources have told ESPN that Postecoglou was keen on giving all members of the squad a clean slate and urged them to buy into his philosophy. However, sources added that from their first meeting, Postecoglou had doubts about Spence. He is said to have reacted badly to Postecoglou's subsequent suggestion of another loan move. Postecoglou's response was to insist he would not be part of his squad. The former Celtic boss has spoken repeatedly in public about prioritising the right sort of characters and he felt Spence was the wrong fit for his group.

By contrast, the case of Pape Matar Sarr has been used internally as an example of the transformation others could have followed. Sarr was frozen out by Conte, starting just two Premier League games in the 2022-23 campaign following his arrival from Metz. Under Postecoglou, Sarr has formed a key midfield partnership with Yves Bissouma, starting 16 of 20 league games prior to joining up with Senegal for the Africa Cup of Nations. Earlier this month, the 21-year-old signed a new long-term contract tying him to Spurs until 2030. Sources have told ESPN that Sarr handled his spell in exile well, remaining focused and diligent throughout.

But Tottenham were willing to listen in the summer to offers for Spence, who changed agents last year, but wanted to recoup the majority of the initial £12.5m fee they paid Middlesbrough. However, suitors were in shorter supply this time and a loan move to Leeds came late in the window with sources suggesting he was initially reluctant to drop back down to the Championship.

A knee injury meant he could make only one appearance between September and December. Spence would make seven appearances for Leeds. Sources said that while he was polite around the training ground, there were once again issues with timekeeping and a failure to fulfil off-field club requirements. A disagreement with Leeds boss Daniel Farke followed over his role in the team. Farke wanted Spence to cover at left-back. The player disagreed and shortly afterwards, Leeds activated a break clause in their loan agreement and Spence was sent back to Tottenham. Spurs were taken by surprise. Postecoglou banished Spence to train with the Under-21s and Tottenham tried to find him another club.

Sources with knowledge of Tottenham's January transfer plans suggest Spurs were now willing to sanction a cut-price sale, but instead they suggested Spence to Genoa during conversations over the signing of centre-back Radu Drăgușin from the Italian club. Negotiations concluded with Spurs paying around €30m for Drăgușin with Spence going the other way on loan. ESPN reported at the time this deal includes an option to sign Spence permanently for €10m.

In addition, sources have told ESPN that Tottenham agreed to waive a loan fee and are paying all of Spence's wages, worth around £60,000 a week. Once again, Spence was initially reluctant to join Genoa but later agreed to the move and has another opportunity to kick-start the career of a player who has raw, exciting talent.

There are some in the game wondering how many more chances he will get.