Djed Spence: ‘I didn’t really have a relationship with Antonio Conte at Spurs’

Estimated read time 12 min read

Now at his fifth club in less than two years, Djed Spence’s career is at something of a crossroads following a series of setbacks.

After the dream of promotion to the Premier League with Nottingham Forest, his dream move to Antonio Conte’s Tottenham Hotspur quickly turned sour, before a stop-start loan spell at Leeds United was cut short by the Championship club.

Yet Spence, now looking to resurrect his career in Italy, is adamant the best is yet to come.

“I know what I’m capable of as a player,” he tells The Athletic from his seaside apartment in Genoa, where he is spending the second half of this season on loan. “When I find my feet properly, it will go well for me.”

He still harbours ambitions of representing England and is confident he can crack the Premier League — if given the opportunity.

“I felt comfortable playing in the Premier League,” he says. “It’s a big step up but I’m more than capable of doing it. I’ve got the physical attributes and everything else to go with it to play in that league.”

In an open and honest chat with The Athletic, Spence discusses his love for Steve Cooper, being frozen out by Conte, his short-lived Leeds loan, and addresses questions over his professionalism and timekeeping…

In the summer of 2022, it felt as though Djed Spence had the world at his feet.

He was a standout player for a Nottingham Forest side that won promotion via the play-offs, and produced a string of dazzling performances in the FA Cup as the Championship side beat Premier League Arsenal and Leicester City before losing to eventual winners, Liverpool.

Spence started 38 league games for Forest and all three play-off matches, culminating in a victory over Huddersfield Town in the final at Wembley.

It seemed Spence’s career was only on an upward trajectory and he was rewarded with a move to Spurs, who had just qualified for the Champions League, on a five-year deal worth up to £20million ($26m).

Spence moved to Spurs in the summer of 2022 but has made just six appearances (James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images)

However, the move turned sour just hours later when Conte made clear Spence was not a player he wanted.

“Spence is an investment of the club,” Conte declared. “The club wanted to do it. I said, ‘OK, this player is young but he showed he can become a good, important player for us’. The club decided to buy him.”

He played fewer than 45 minutes of football for Tottenham in total before he was sent packing on loan to Rennes, in Ligue 1, on deadline day in January 2023.

Asked to reflect on that period at Tottenham, Spence pauses for thought, before saying: “I didn’t have a great time. I went there and I didn’t play, so obviously it was hard for me. When you sign somewhere as a player for a big club, you want to be filled with confidence and welcomed with open arms, as I was, but it just didn’t feel right when I went there. Things didn’t go well as I planned.

“When you don’t get a chance, there’s not much you can do as a player. You get lost, you’re not playing, it’s hard to get a rhythm again. It’s never easy going to a new environment when things don’t go well but it’s part of the game. It’s a learning experience.”

When asked specifically about Conte and that “club signing” comment, Spence says: “I didn’t really have a relationship with him, to be honest. He’s a coach that has his way. I don’t think he has much of a relationship with his players. It’s come into training and train — and that’s pretty much it.”

What to Spence felt like coldness from Conte was in stark contrast to the relationship he had enjoyed with his previous manager.

“Steve Cooper’s a good person, he understands people,” Spence says. “He’s a great coach, he understood me as a player and as a person, that was very important. He worked for England youth, he had that experience of younger players and people coming from different backgrounds and knowing how to deal with certain players — that played a big part in it. He just let me be me.

“With Cooper, he’ll make you feel confident, he’ll ask you questions, he’ll speak to you like a normal human; that plays a big part in football. We don’t just go to work and press a button and we just function and play. We’re human, we like interaction, we like to speak.”

Cooper was able to get the best out of Spence at Forest (Isaac Parkin/PA Images via Getty Images)

It helped, too, that Forest played 3-5-2, a ready-made system for Spence to attack down the right and express himself.

Did Cooper’s sacking as Forest manager in December surprise Spence?

“No. These things happen in football. No one is exempt from being fired, it’s football. He did a great job with us getting to the Premier League, he did some fantastic things for the club.”

He is still in the early stages of his career but Spence divides opinion among managers.

At Middlesbrough, his parent club during that loan spell at Forest, he became a regular under Jonathan Woodgate, who took him under his wing and even invited him round for lunch on Christmas Day in 2019 to save the Londoner from spending the day alone.

However, Woodgate was sacked in June 2020 and replaced with Neil Warnock. Spence clashed with Warnock, who infamously told him, “You can go to the top or you can go non-League.”

Even though he was a starter under Warnock, he was viewed by some within the club at the time as being a disruptive influence. An accident involving an electric scooter led to Warnock becoming increasingly irritated and he was sent out on loan to promotion rivals Forest for the 2021-22 season, where he flourished under Cooper.

Spence celebrated promotion by cheekily tweeting a photo of himself with a cigar and the trophy in the Forest dressing room alongside a caption: “Oh, Where’s my Manners! Welcome to Twitter @warnockofficial”.

He was loved by the Forest fans and his mum, Aisha, became a cult figure for her enthusiastic celebrations — leading the chanting on the City Ground pitch after Forest won a penalty shootout against Sheffield United to reach the play-off final. His mum, who also has three daughters, including actress Karla-Simone, continues to be a constant source of support and was at Genoa’s last match, a 2-1 defeat at Inter Milan on Monday night.

Spence’s face lights up when he’s asked about that golden Forest period.

“It was me at my best, it was me enjoying football and loving the game. It was one the best moments of my career, it was a really good time.”

It feels as though Spence is someone who responds well to an arm-around-the-shoulder approach.

“Some managers understand certain people, some don’t,” he says when asked whether that is the case. “Some managers have worked with many different players from different cultures, others haven’t, you know? That’s what it could boil down to.”

But how does a manager get the best out of Djed Spence?

“Just believe in me, let me be me, give me confidence, let me play and let me do what I do,” he replies. “It goes a long way if you know a manager trusts and believes in you, it gives you an extra boost.”

Spence is on his third loan since joining Tottenham in July 2022, after spells at Rennes and Leeds.

In France, he made a handful of appearances alongside fellow Spurs loanee Joe Rodon, the highlight of which was a 2-0 away win over champions Paris Saint-Germain when he helped keep Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi quiet.

“It was definitely a new challenge, it was an eye-opener,” he says of his time in France, “it was very different but I’m grateful for the experience.”

When he returned to Tottenham in the summer, there was a new man in the dugout as Ange Postecoglou replaced Conte, who had been sacked in March. The Australian, who joined from Celtic, had a look at Spence in pre-season but omitted him from every friendly. Out the picture again, he arrived at Leeds on a season-long loan at the end of August.

Leeds terminated Spence’s loan early during the January window (MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

He made his Leeds debut from the bench against Sheffield Wednesday in September, before sustaining lateral collateral knee ligament damage following a challenge in training and subsequently missed his new side’s next 12 games. Spence returned to the squad in November and made his first Leeds start in the 1-0 defeat by Sunderland on December 12. He started the next four matches before being left out against Birmingham City on New Year’s Day. Days later, Leeds terminated the loan and he returned to Tottenham.

When asked about Spence’s departure, Leeds manager Daniel Farke said: “Obviously, it’s important — the potential and the quality of the player, but also it’s professionalism, it’s discipline, it’s workload on and off the pitch and also the soft skills, also if he’s positive and committed, good for the group and engaged with these topics. Our demands are very, very high and we don’t differ between loan players or permanent players. We are pretty picky on this topic.”

As explained in The Athletic here, sources with knowledge of the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect relationships, said Farke’s main issue with Spence had been his in-game performance levels while there had been other teething concerns, such as late arrivals for training sessions and team meetings.

This was not the first occasion there had been questions over Spence’s professionalism and timekeeping.

“I don’t think that’s fair at all,” says Spence in response. “I don’t necessarily agree with what they said. But in football, this is how it is: you have to keep your head down, keep going and eventually prove people wrong.

“Some of it is a bit blown out of proportion. You can be late once and if you’re not playing, it’s a problem, and if you are playing, then it’s not a problem.”

He said his time at Leeds was hampered by first that early injury, and then being played out of position by Farke.

“I went there, things were going well, then I got injured,” he explains. “I got quite a bad injury to my knee, then I came back but I was still getting pain. I came back and was playing a bit but I was playing on the wrong side (at left-back). It wasn’t easy. It didn’t get the best out of me, everyone wants to play in their best position.”

Now at Genoa, 12th in Serie A, Spence is determined to get his career back on track and nail down a regular starting spot under Alberto Gilardino. The Italian side have an option to purchase Spence outright for £8.5million at the end of his loan spell.

Spence is still hoping he can break into the Tottenham team, although he has had no contact from anyone at the club during his loan spell.

“I want to play for Tottenham,” he says. “I want to be a big part of the plan but we’ve got to see how things go, have a discussion with the manager and everyone. It’s a big difference with the new manager, I did pre-season with him — he’s a good guy, he has good training sessions, he likes to play football, it’s a new environment at the club. I think everyone’s enjoying it and doing well, I’m pleased for them.”

Spence has started three league games for Genoa this year (Simone Arveda/Getty Images)

“I don’t think the Tottenham fans know me as a player. They’ve probably seen me from Forest days but I haven’t played so they don’t know what I’m capable of.

“The best is yet to come. Wherever I’ll be, I can hit the ground running and show everyone what I’m capable of doing.”

He believes he has already improved the tactical side of his game during his time in Italy.

“It will make me a better player, you always learn something when you go abroad or play for a different club, so it’s taking something from each club and country and sticking into one and becoming a complete player. You always grow as a person and you’re always learning from the experiences, I’m learning every day and I’m enjoying it.”

Speaking of new experiences, with Copa America just three months away, could Spence be tempted by the chance to play for Jamaica?

While the defender was born in London, his parents are of Jamaican descent, and he could link up on the international stage with Demarai Gray, Bobby De Cordova-Reid and Michail Antonio. They share a group with Mexico, Ecuador and Venezuela.

“It’s entered my mind before, but I want to play for England on the biggest stage,” he says. “I’m capable of doing so. Jamaica could be an option but my focus is on England and I want to get there and play with the best and be the best.

“I can still get there. It’s one of my dreams. I mean, who wouldn’t want to represent their country?”


(Top photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)