THERE have not been too many good news stories at Middlesbrough this season, but the emergence of Djed Spence has provided a rare ray of light amid the gathering gloom.

Off the pitch, the 19-year-old is the unaffected teenager who still cycles to Boro’s Rockliffe Park training ground. On it, his unfettered, adventurous playing style makes him the exemplar of the modern-day full-back. Tying him down to a long-term deal was one of the best things the Teessiders have done in the last 12 months.

In his four decades in management, Neil Warnock has seen plenty of talented youngsters come and go. Some have gone on to become international superstars. Others have fallen by the wayside, barely playing a senior game.

Talent is clearly important, along with guidance and support on the training ground. Ultimately, though, the mental side of player’s development often holds the key to how far they will progress.

When Warnock looks at Spence, he sees a player with all the physical attributes required to succeed at the very highest level. But he also finds himself looking at an understandably-naïve teenager with so much still to learn.

“With Djed, I think it’s more of a mental issue he’ll have to have in the next couple of years,” explained Warnock. “I think it’s about what you need to play at the top level, it’s a hard league. The Championship’s hard as well, but to get to the top level, you have to be really mentally strong.

“He’s only a young lad at the minute, and he’s got a lot to learn. I hope I can teach him certain things. He reminds me very much of Nathaniel Clyne, who I had at Palace. He was a really nice lad and had to learn how to look after himself.”

Warnock has already held a number of one-to-one discussions with Spence, talking the full-back through the positional side of his game and picking out moments when his desire to get on the front foot has got the better of him.

Jonathan Woodgate played an integral role in the youngster’s progression into the first team, but the pair fell out when Spence refused to shake hands after he was substituted during December’s 1-1 draw with Nottingham Forest. Spence was dropped for the following game at Swansea, with Woodgate clearly feeling he had crossed a line by being so disrespectful.

Everyone makes mistakes, particularly in the pressure-cooker environment of a relegation fight, and the fact that Woodgate restored the youngster back into the fold so quickly highlights the extent of his natural talents.

Warnock has never been afraid to talk up his players, and the fact he is willing to discuss Spence in the same breath as Trent Alexander-Arnold, the stand-out full-back in English football this season, speaks volumes for just how highly he rates him.

“If you look at one or two of the full-backs that are around now - the lad at Liverpool, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and the lad at Manchester United from Palace (Aaron Wan-Bissaka) - they are all the same type as Djed.

“He does have enormous ability, and when you’ve got ability like that it’s criminal if you don’t get to the very top. But as I said to him in that first couple of weeks, he’ll only have himself to blame if he doesn’t get to the very top.

“He has quite a few things to brush up on at the minute, and I’m sure he will try. He’s a very good trainer and works hard.”

Spence should be available for today’s game with Bristol City, although he was visiting a medical specialist at 7am this morning to have a mask fitted to protect the broken nose he suffered in Wednesday’s win at Millwall. “He needs to see if he can breathe okay with it,” said Warnock. “Because that will enable him to play.”

Having switched formations to play with a back five at the Den, Warnock is set to stick with the same system for tomorrow’s game with Bristol City.

Middlesbrough (probable, 5-3-2): Stojanovic; Spence, Fry, Shotton, Friend, Johnson; McNair, Howson, Saville; Fletcher, Assombalonga.