A COMMON criticism levelled at young footballers is that, the moment they break into the first team, they assume they’ve made it and allow the inevitable fame and flattery to go to their head.

Not Djed Spence. Middlesbrough’s 19-year-old wing-back might be the talk of Teesside after his first senior goal secured a Boxing Day win over Huddersfield Town, but loiter outside the gates of the club’s Rockliffe Park training ground, and you’ll see that Spence’s feet remain firmly on the ground. Or to be more precise, on the pedals of his bike.

Forget your fancy Range Rovers or BMWs, look beyond your sports cars or souped-up SUVs. Each and every morning, Spence cycles from his home near Darlington to Boro’s training complex in Hurworth. Little wonder he is so energetic as he hurtles up and down the right flank.

“Haha, yeah, that’ll have been me,” answered Spence, when asked whether he was the sprinting cyclist that has been the talk of Hurworth in the last few days. “I still go in on my bike most days. It keeps me fit. I’ve passed my (driving) test, I’m just waiting to get something sorted. Until then, it’ll be the bike.”

Somehow, it seems fitting. On a match day, it is the opposition defenders who have to get on their bike to try to catch him.

Jonathan Woodgate’s willingness to put his faith in Middlesbrough’s youngsters has been the story of the season so far on Teesside, with Spence one of five academy products to feature in the starting line-up that proved too strong to Huddersfield. Count Lewis Wing, who progressed through the Under-23s set-up after joining from Northern League side Shildon, and the tally rises to six.

Spence’s emergence has been the most unexpected, with the teenager not having featured in a single senior squad before he was parachuted into the starting line-up for this month’s home game against Charlton Athletic.

Since then, he has racked up four senior starts – three wins and a draw – with his rampaging runs down the right evolving into a key facet of Boro’s attacking.

It is all a far cry from 18 months ago, when his release from Fulham raised inevitable questions about whether he had a future in football. The Cottagers didn’t think he could make it, but Boro disagreed. It has not taken long for their assessment to be proved correct.

“I first went to Fulham when I was either Under-10s or Under-11s,” said Spence. “I was there until the Under-18s, but for whatever reason, I just didn’t get offered a professional contract. It was a difficult time, to be let go, but I got the offer from Middlesbrough and came here straight away. They offered me the chance to join them, and I’ve just been kicking on since then, working hard. What I’m doing now is what I’ve always wanted.

“It was a hard time to get your head around. They (Fulham) didn’t offer me anything so I didn’t have a club. I was looking around for options, and thankfully Middlesbrough came in for me.”

But didn’t such a public rejection at such a young age dent his confidence? “Not really,” countered Spence, with a conviction that has clearly served him well. “I always knew in myself what I could do, so if anything, it probably just made me even more determined to make it as a footballer.

“You’ve just got to be resilient. You’ve got to know what you want within football, and you’ve got to keep doing it. As the last few weeks have shown, if you do that, you’ll get your opportunity.”

Fulham’s loss has been Boro’s gain, with Spence making an immediate impact in the senior set-up. Along with his fellow youngster on the opposite flank, Hayden Coulson, the teenager has helped justify Jonathan Woodgate’s switch to a defensive formation with wing-backs, and also repaid his manager’s faith in his capabilities.

“I always hoped I’d get my chance,” he said. “I worked with the manager last year when (Tony) Pulis was here, and all through the pre-season, he told all the young players, ‘You’ll get your chance – just keep playing well and working hard’. He told me I had to be mentally ready because I’d get my chance. I got my chance, and I’m taking it at the moment.”

Given his laid-back approach to life, you suspect Spence would always have been reasonably confident stepping into the first-team environment. However, it has undoubtedly helped to have so many youngsters stepping up from the academy ranks at the same time.

“It inspires you to know other people in your position are doing well,” said Spence. “They’re in the position you want to be in, and you’ve just got to work hard to get there.”