Belfast Telegraph

Sports Awards

How Jamal Lewis' athletics stardom helped the Luton lad become a Northern Ireland international

By Graham Luney

Jamal Lewis plans to hit the ground running with Northern Ireland and, given his impressive athletics background, he will take it all in his stride.

In his younger years the Norwich full-back was a talented runner, leaving rivals behind in the 800m and cross country.

At one stage he raced for England Schools and was ranked in the top five in the country over 800m, and there's no question his speed across the ground is a huge feature of his game.

The 20-year-old is now hoping to be quick out of the blocks in Saturday's friendly with South Korea at Windsor Park.

He was progressing well in Northern Ireland youth sides, but after scoring in the FA Cup replay defeat by Chelsea in January there was a growing feeling Michael O'Neill had a diamond within his grasp.

"I was at Luton Town before Norwich City as a scholar so I did athletics and football, dual together," said Lewis yesterday at the team's Culloden Hotel base. "But it was always football as the main sport. I did running and it helps me with my game now, I feel like I can deal with the men's side of football, the capacity of running and the physical side of it.

"It definitely helped me but it wasn't like a 50-50 thing, I just enjoyed running and it helped my football as well.

"I ran for English Schools and I was ranked in the top five in the country for 800m but I don't really think of it like that because I didn't take it as seriously as others, I didn't really read into it. I always loved football the most so I just happened to be good at running. It helps you get up and down the pitch."

The fact that Lewis is with the senior panel instead of the Under-21 side this week underlines how highly rated he is by O'Neill.

His Belfast-born mother Catrina will be at Windsor Park to cheer her boy on and it will be an incredibly proud moment for the Lewis family - a moment they have spent years waiting for.

"I was at Norwich from the age of 16, probably around then when I was 17 I was at a training camp with Northern Ireland," he said. "Then I got injured and just missed quite a few international breaks. I've been a bit unfortunate.

"Probably around the age of 16 I thought, 'Okay, this could be something I could aim and strive for'.

"There's a lot of friendlies but with the Nations League there's still a lot of games coming up.

"I'll definitely just try to get Michael to look at me in training and if he feels like I'm ready to get on the pitch I'll just prove to him I could possibly be the No.1 left-back for the team and be a big part of the side and just look forward to every international break, getting called up and playing every game.

Northern Ireland's new boy Jamal Lewis can't wait to introduce himself to the #GAWA 🙌🏽 💚⚪ Watch 🎥 and read ✍🏻 more from...

Posted by Belfast Telegraph Sport on Tuesday, March 20, 2018

"The Under-21s have a big game against Spain on Thursday, we've done really well in the competition so far so we put ourselves in a great position.

"I know quite a few of the lads from when I played in the summer. It will be great to watch them and support them. It was good to catch up with the boys on Monday night and we all mingled together. I was mostly with the Under-21s. That was a good thing to have us all together, most of us have got to come through because we're the next generation. It was great just to mingle."

Lewis knows he's blessed to play in front of two fantastic goalkeepers at Norwich, his Northern Ireland team-mate Michael McGovern and Angus Gunn, who is on loan from Manchester City.

"Micky's been helpful," said Lewis. "He's a great lad to have by my side at Norwich as well. He said it's a great bunch of lads, which it is. I'm just enjoying it. It's a great experience.

"Angus and Micky are great to have in training, they keep the tempo high. When you're playing out, doing training, goalies are the most important players sometimes, they set the tempo, both of them are great shot-stoppers and use their feet. They are two high-quality keepers to have in the team which is amazing.

"Last international break Angus got called up to the England first team which was a great experience for him, he's a real top-notch keeper, you can see why Man City want to keep their claws on him."

Fresh from his goalscoring heroics against Chelsea, Lewis now has a taste for the big time.

"Just playing at Stamford Bridge and just playing Chelsea, and even the Championship games, every game is so big, I just love it," he added. "Having fans in week in, week out makes you up your game.

"The lads were great over both games. They played really well. At Stamford Bridge, it was a great occasion and unfortunately we conceded a goal but we knew if we could nick something it would be good.

"My centre-back decided to play left wing so I had nowhere to play! I went to play striker! He put in a great ball with his right foot and I just got my head on it. I'm not really known for my heading so the boys were giving me a bit of stick. It was a great moment for me. My mum was watching as well, and I had loads of my friends watching. It was really good.

"It's not like the Championship is an easy league, you learn something every week. I'm still young, making mistakes. There's a great bunch of lads at Norwich.

"If the time comes to make the decision then I'll sit down and make the decision, but at this point I'm loving Norwich and would love to stay there."

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph