Belfast Telegraph

'I was never going to switch like Declan Rice': Jamal Lewis has no regrets over Nothern Ireland path

 

Challenge renewed: Henri Anier of Estonia tackles Jamal Lewis during the Euro 2020 qualifier at Windsor Park in March
Challenge renewed: Henri Anier of Estonia tackles Jamal Lewis during the Euro 2020 qualifier at Windsor Park in March
Jamal Lewis in action for Norwich City

By Steven Beacom

Jamal Lewis was a relatively unknown young defender trying to make his way in the English Championship when he made his Northern Ireland debut.

Fifteen months on, having starred in Norwich City's promotion success, he is now Premier League bound and rated as one of the most promising full-backs in the UK.

Lewis is also one of the first names on Michael O'Neill's team-sheet and will be a key figure for Northern Ireland in the upcoming Euro 2020 qualifiers away Estonia and Belarus.

Such is the 21-year-old's immense potential, in time England boss Gareth Southgate may see the Luton-born ace as one that got away.

Lewis qualifies to play for Northern Ireland through his Belfast-born mother. He savours pulling on the green shirt and has no regrets that he didn't wait for the country of his birth to come calling.

O'Neill gave Lewis, then 20, his bow at the highest level in a friendly at home to South Korea in March last year.

Like West Ham midfielder Declan Rice, who played friendlies for the Republic of Ireland, his debut wouldn't have tied him down. Unlike Rice, who ditched the Republic to join England, Lewis was more than happy to play in competitive internationals and throw his lot in with Northern Ireland.

"I've no regrets. That thought process was in my mind last year, but once I made the decision that was it," explained Lewis back in March.

"Obviously you can play friendlies like the Declan Rice situation but once I had played that first friendly for Northern Ireland that was it, there was no changing back. I've enjoyed every game I've played for Northern Ireland."

Those comments endeared the full-back to the Green and White Army. What he is aiming for in the future will make him even more popular.

He says: "I'm really looking forward to seeing how this team does now and incorporating myself into the team and being part of something special at international level and qualify for a tournament."

Lewis was superb in the opening Euro 2020 qualifying victories against Estonia and Belarus at Windsor Park three months ago.

Those wins mean Northern Ireland enter the second batch of fixtures in Group C at the top of the table.

That's where they plan to be after the latest double header, starting away to Estonia on Saturday night before facing Belarus on the road next Tuesday.

With Holland and Germany to come later this year, 12 points out of 12 against the lesser lights in the group is a must.

"The performances and results at Windsor Park were good and we'll be looking to repeat that," said Lewis.

"There is no reason we can't do it away. These games could be vital to our chances of getting through."

Growing up, Lewis was a talented athlete before opting for football as his career. Those running skills are evident the way the Norwich ace races up and down the left side.

For O'Neill he's not just an important cog in the back four, he is a major attacking threat as well, and there are promising signs that he and new Rangers winger Jordan Jones could strike up a dangerous partnership on the flank.

Confident, but not arrogant, Lewis has relished his international experiences so far. With eight caps, he admits the football with Northern Ireland has been different to what he was used to with Norwich in their Championship winning campaign.

"What I feel is that it almost goes from slow to quick very quickly," says Lewis.

"In the Championship, after 10 minutes you know what style the opposition will play or how quick the tempo is going to be.

"Being top of the league, most games we dictate the tempo and possession. So with Northern Ireland it's all about getting used to being without the ball, being switched on without the ball positioning wise.

"It almost feels like the teams are slow and then when they get into the final third they are really quick - even the so-called lesser teams. They still have the quality to punish you if you make a mistake."

Lewis analyses his own performances to enhance his game. He also watches other full-backs to pick up tips.

One that has impressed him is Liverpool's Champions League winning star and Scotland skipper Andy Robertson.

"Robbo is getting there for being the most complete left back in Europe. Every time I watch him he just gets better and better," said Lewis, who is coming along nicely himself.

After Northern Ireland's Euro games, Lewis will take a short summer break before returning to pre-season training with the Canaries when matches against Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and the rest await in the Premier League.

Lewis has the ability to shine. You get the feeling his story is only starting.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph