NEIL WARNOCK has worked with plenty of talented youngsters during his four decades as a football manager, and has watched countless highly-regarded prospects head in different directions.

Some have made it to the very highest level, realising their early potential and often exceeding expectations as they go on to make it in the Premier League and on the international stage. Others, despite their bright beginnings, have disappeared without trace, lacking either the application or commitment to succeed at the very highest level.

When he watches Djed Spence tear up the flank at the Riverside or dance past an opponent on the training ground at Rockliffe Park, Warnock is left in no doubt about the 20-year-old’s natural ability. But when it comes to assessing where the Londoner will end up as his career progresses, the Middlesbrough manager freely admits it is pointless making a firm prediction.

“There’s not many players where you can say it’s all up to themselves, personally, how far they go,” said Warnock, when asked to comment on Spence’s likely career trajectory. “But that’s the case with him.

“It’s about what’s between his ears. He could go anywhere in the next five years – he could be playing for one of the top clubs in England or he could be playing in non-league. I don’t know.”

The inference is clear. Spence, who was linked with a possible January move to Newcastle United earlier this week, might possess all the attributes needed to play in the top-flight, but whether he boasts the requisite attitude and professionalism to go along with his abundant talent remains open to debate. Tellingly, Warnock is not the first Boro manager to raise such a question.

Jonathan Woodgate was Spence’s biggest supporter, having introduced the athletic young defender to the first-team fold midway through last season.

Yet even he was left exasperated at times. Last December, Woodgate dropped Spence for a game at Swansea City because he had been disappointed with the full-back’s reaction to being substituted against Nottingham Forest in the previous game.

Spence headed straight down the tunnel shaking his head, leading Woodgate to tear a strip off him after the game. Hardly the most heinous of crimes given Spence’s tender years, but evidence perhaps of a character that needs careful nurturing.

Warnock will give Spence a degree of leeway as he comes to terms with the demands of being a senior professional, but there will be limits to his tolerance and he will want to see signs of the 20-year-old beginning to grow up.

He will encourage him to learn from the likes of Paddy McNair and Jonny Howson, model professionals who are extremely influential figures in the Middlesbrough dressing room, but ultimately Spence will have to find his own way and make his own decisions.

Warnock clearly wants him to knuckle down on the training ground and start to take more things on board. He has commented on his positional play in the past, and will demand a consistently high level of application, both on a matchday and in each and every training session. Yet he will not want to blunt the natural attributes that make Spence such an exciting prospect. Striking the right balance will be key.

“I’ve been impressed (with Spence) up to a point, but I think there’s so much more he could do,” added Warnock.

“It’s about application, dedication – all of these things come into it. He’s definitely got all the tools though, there’s no doubt at all about that.”