NORTHERN IRELAND: Jamal Lewis loving life on the big stage

Jamal Lewis. Pic by Pacemaker.
Jamal Lewis. Pic by Pacemaker.

Jamal Lewis’ first experience of Windsor Park could come accompanied by a first senior appearance this weekend against South Korea.

It would cap a remarkable rise for the promising full-back, with the context of his climb into that spotlight confirmed by the fact he only made his senior club debut three months’ ago.

Lewis stood weeks away from a first-team call-up with Norwich City at club level when Northern Ireland last stepped out for a competitive fixture with the high-profile low point of the World Cup play-off in November against Switzerland.

Now roll the clock forward and Lewis is in line to feature as a first glimpse of life under O’Neill following the manager’s commitment to rebuilding for future tournaments.

“I’m just trying to take everything in my stride,” said Lewis. “Club football’s going well and to get called up for your national team as well, it’s a great honour.

“Michael’s told me about Windsor Park and how the atmosphere’s crazy.

“I’ve never been to Windsor Park for a game so it will be my first taste of it for the South Korea match, so I’m looking forward to it.

“I heard the fans are crazy, like having a 12th man.

“I’m just taking it game by game really, just really enjoying it as these are the kind of moments you dream about when you’re younger.

“Now it’s come you kind of pinch yourself sometimes but you just get on with it, just enjoy your football.

“The lads are really welcoming, really nice and we had our first training session today.

“It was good just to stretch out the legs, get the ball moving, it’s been good so far.”

The defender attracted national attention in January with an injury-time goal - his first for City - against Chelsea during the FA Cup third-round replay. City’s cup dream was cut short by a penalty shoot-out exit - but for Lewis it helped cement his climb up to the senior stage with Northern Ireland.

Luton-born Lewis can qualify for Northern Ireland as his mother, Catrina, is from Belfast. Having clocked up caps at underage level, he admits a swift decision to answer the senior call from O’Neill.

“Obviously half my family’s from here so it was a bit of a no-brainer for me when they came calling,” he said. “I played for the under 19s and under 21s so I’ve come through the system a little bit.

“I was just delighted, everything’s moving so quickly and I’m just trying to take it all in my stride.

“My mum’s coming over, that will be good for her.

“A couple of weeks before the Chelsea game Michael was just chatting to my agent and they were tossing up playing for the under 21s and firsts but I think he wanted me to work solo with the first team this break.

“Just playing at Stamford Bridge and just playing Chelsea and even the Championship games, every game is so big.

“I just love it, it’s like having fans in, week in and week out, makes you up your game.

“The lads were great over both games against Chelsea, 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 and 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 after.

“It was a great moment for me, obviously my mum was watching as well and I had loads of my friends watching.”

Lewis, a former 800-metres runner at national schools’ level in England, has long-term goals with Northern Ireland. His prospects of becoming established in that specialist left-back slot could improve in light of veteran Chris Brunt’s decision to take a step back from the international scene.

“I just want to enjoy it with the Northern Ireland squad and move forward,” he said. “We were doing a bit of shape today so seeing how the team wants to play in the future, seeing how they’ve played.

“They’ve got a lot of talented players in this group, if we can just work well it seems like we can do a lot and it’s a really promising sight.

“Obviously Chris is a vital member of the team so it would be good to have him back no matter what.

“But if he doesn’t come back, that obviously gives me a little bit of an opportunity to play in the team and make the left-back spot my own.

“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.

“Then I got injured and just missed quite a few international breaks through injury.

“I’ve been a bit unfortunate but 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 in the next year or so.

“Definitely I’ll just try to get Michael to look at me through training and, if he feels like I’m ready, get on the pitch and just prove to him I could possibly be the number one left-back for the team and be a big part of the team.

“I just look forward to every international break to try and get called up and then play every game.”

Lewis has spent plenty of time admiring Northern Ireland’s progress as a fan and prospect. Plus he can turn to club colleague Michael McGovern for inside advice on life with the senior squad.

“The European Championships were amazing,” he said. “With the World Cup qualifiers against Switzerland, obviously it was unfortunate.

“When you get to those games it is the fine margins that can decide the game.

“It was unfortunate to go out in that kind of way but it showed what the lads can do because they’re such a great group and they’ve shown how they can dig deep and win vital games.

“Hopefully we can continue and kick on and do that.

“Micky’s been helpful, he’s a great lad as well to have by my side at Norwich as well.

“He said it’s a great bunch of lads, which it is, so I’m just enjoying it as a great experience.”

Former Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington has long-standing ties with Norwich and has gone on record as hoping Lewis commits to the club to aid his development.

“It’s not like the Championship is an easy league, you learn something every week,” said Lewis. “I’m still young, making mistakes and learning every game.

“If the time comes to make the decision then I’ll have to sit down and make the decision but at this point I’m loving football at Norwich and would love to stay there.”

Lewis admits a sense of attacking adventure as a young player, citing the skills of players such as Ronaldinho and Steven Gerrard as idols before turning his focus on modern full-backs like Marcelo and Jordi Alba for inspiration.

The fact that he has plans to attend Thursday’s game in Portadown between Northern Ireland under 21s and Spain highlights his recent links to that next generation as Lewis stands on the verge of making a senior breakthrough.

“I used to play a little more attacking so I loved Ronaldinho and Steven Gerrard and used to look up to those kind of players,” he said. “I’m taking a bit more of a defensive role these days.

“I look up to the likes of Marcelo or Jordi Alba, the modern-day attacking full-back which I try and resemble my game on.

“The under 21s have a big game against Spain but 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 when I went and played in the summer so it will be great to watch them and support them.

“It was good to catch up with the boys but we all mingled together at this week’s dinner between the two squads.”