Destiny Udogie: Tottenham defender’s instant impact no surprise after years of early impressions

How Destiny Udogie made it to the Premier League by those who know him best; left-back joined boyhood side Hellas Verona as a nine-year-old and was signed by Udinese after barely four hours of first-team football; Spurs held off interest from Inter Milan to sign him only a year later

When Destiny Udogie was told he was not old enough to join in his elder brother’s Uwa’s first football training session, he burst into tears.

Even by that point, he had been “kicking everything round the house” as a baby, by his own introspection. But this was something a little more organised.

As much to placate her youngest son as anything else, his mother Kate managed to convince the team’s coach to let Destiny join in the session, despite some initial scepticism.

The four-year-old Destiny defied his age to mix it with the older boys. So much so, he impressed enough in that short time to join the team.

Less than two decades on, Udogie now patrols the left flank at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium like a seasoned veteran far beyond his 21 years – though the reports of tears have long-since dried up.

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It turns out that one unremarkable mid-2000s morning would become markedly prescient of defining a player who has made a habit of creating an instant impression.

Barely five months since making his debut in North London, he has already signed a three-year extension to his original deal, such has been the impact of his debut Premier League season.

And all this only three years after he played his first ever professional game. His rise has been fast, and not far off unfaltering. And there have been plenty of hints as to why.

Even before he first signed terms for boyhood side Hellas Verona as a nine-year-old, there is a story that hints at Udogie’s potential when a scout from rival side Atalanta came to watch him play for his local side.

They were so disbelieving of his ability compared to his age group, they demanded to see proof of his date of birth.

Football had become his passion that day he joined Uwa to training. But instead of the bright lights of the San Siro or the history of the Stadio Olimpico, joining Verona – the major team of his home city – had always been the dream.

It would be cliched to suggest this was a marker of chasing the dream rather than fame and fortune, but it does fit. And it certainly was a further sign of his determination when he finally made the grade after twice being turned away from the club.

Image: Destiny Udogie played barely four hours of football for boyhood club Hellas Verona before he was snapped up by Udinese

“It was a dream come true when he finally signed,” his father Franklin told Sky Sports. “He was always so desperate to win for them – it’s what made his coaches love him.

“He has such a passion for the game, he would never miss training for anything.”

It was third time lucky. Udogie took his opportunity with both hands and after being immediately moved from a centre-forward to the backline, flew through the academy age groups as more and more of his peers were let go.

He spent much of his teenage years as one of the tallest players in the academy squad, but kept the height and agility which had made him such a tricky player as a child.

That offered less of an advantage once he broke into the Verona first team and made his debut in November 2020, still three weeks from his 18th birthday.

Though given he had mastered a quick adaptation to the game while still a toddler, there was always a decent chance he would swim rather than sink.

Within weeks of his first appearance, Udinese scout Andrea Carnevale was sufficiently intrigued to visit the Stadio Marcantonio Bentegodi. What he found was no surprise to anyone who had witnessed Destiny’s career to this point.

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“He was a precocious boy,” Carnevale later told Corriere Dello Sport. “He was 18 and had only played a few matches for Verona, but that was enough to understand the quality he had.”

At the end of the season, only six matches into his professional career, Udinese took the plunge and signed him. Again, the level-headed Udogie shone, making 29 league starts in his first season and earning a reputation as one of Italy’s best young prospects.

Every challenge he had faced, he had overcome. But making it in Italy’s top flight was another step up entirely. It is here the role of Franklin in Destiny’s life becomes most apparent.

“We knew he was a good footballer but that he could become great,” he told Sky Sports. “I always encouraged him to take things seriously and be sensible. Go to bed early when there’s a match the following day.

“When we were driving to games, I would encourage him to put extra energy into that match. After the game, that’s when he has the time to rest, and we would go for a McDonald’s!”

By the time of his ascension to Italy’s top flight, the mutual fast food and night-time rituals had moved on, but the values had not.

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Destiny’s mother and father never let themselves miss a Udinese home game in the two years he was with the club. Even as devout Christians, when it meant a logistical headache with attending Sunday service.

This was their son’s first time playing away from home, and they wanted to continue to embody that same drive they sought in him too.

“His spell in Udine really helped us as a family because they believed in him, and allowed him to show his talent,” Franklin said.

Halfway through Destiny’s time at Udinese, then-Tottenham director of football Fabio Paratici’s eye was caught.

Spurs fought off competition from Serie A runners-up Inter Milan to land Udogie’s signature, but felt his development would be best served with another year in Italy.

Who knows how he would have fared had he made the step up to the Premier League immediately. The evidence suggests he may have blossomed again – but perhaps one more season on home soil was an ideal turn of fate.

Originally, Udogie’s signing appeared to be the perfect catalyst for Antonio Conte’s unwavering wing-back system, but by the time he arrived in north London the club were already trying to banish any memories of the manager’s bad-tempered exit.

Coupled with a less impressive season in the Italian top flight, marked by a 3am car crash which saw him fined by the club, the first question marks began to creep in over the defender’s next move.

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His agent may have slightly downplayed the incident as a “little hiccup” in the days afterwards, but Udogie took his medicine and quickly moved on.

Looking back, arriving at Tottenham at the same time as new boss Ange Postecoglou last summer was perfect timing. If you could mould a defender in the manager’s image, it wouldn’t look far different from Udogie’s strengths of pace, strength and stamina coupled with a fair deal of technical quality.

“We already saw just how much quality he had at Udinese,” former team-mate Sandi Lovric told The Italian Football Podcast. “When you can train with players like this every day, you see the quality, the strength, the technique, the power that he has.”

He has done everything his new manager has asked of him since his arrival. He encapsulates their front-foot style, winning the third-most balls back in the final third per 90 minutes of any defender, while also having the fourth-highest opposition box touches.

He may like to have more of an attacking return than his two assists and solitary goal to date – but everyone needs areas to improve.

And after all, with his track record on the challenges he has faced so far, it may not take long before he is doing exactly that. Perhaps you could call it Destiny.

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