Jamal Lewis sees a brighter future with NI and himself after dark days

Jamal Lewis (left) and Dion Charles celebrate the latter scoring for Northern Ireland against San Marino during Thursday night’s UEFA Euro 2024 qualifier in Serravalle. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye

DARK days, away from the perceived "glitz and glamour" of Premier League football, have been Jamal Lewis's lot over the past couple of years.

The 25-year-old has acknowledged the negative effect on his mental well-being of playing very rarely with his club Newcastle United.

However, after performing admirably away to San Marino for Northern Ireland, he labels himself "almost like a lion ready to come out his cage."

A teenage sensation at Norwich City, including scoring a stunning first senior goal against Chelsea in an FA Cup replay, Lewis made 24 Premier League appearances for Newcastle in his first season there after his move in September 2020.

Yet he fell out of favour, and has been troubled by injuries, making just five appearances last season for the Magpies – and only one so far in this campaign.

"One hundred per cent there have been dark days," he admits. "Obviously football is all glitz and glamour but it's the darker side or the psychological side of football is not talked about as much as it probably should be.

"It's been difficult going from playing week in, week out at my first club, Norwich, to not playing and then getting injured and having a tricky injury that I can't really get on top of, which can play a very negative part in your mental wellbeing and everything.

"But to get on top of it. I'm just looking forward now and I'm really optimistic about my future and my career and hopefully everything can go into an upward trajectory now."

The Magpies have been soaring under Eddie Howe, looking on course to qualify for the Champions League, but Lewis accepts that he may have to fly the nest if he's to get regular first team football.

For now, though, his sights remain on the Euro 2024 qualifying scene: "I will just focus game-to-game. For me now I'm looking to Finland and I want to get another three points for the team, that's the highest priority for me.

"Then, just moving forward, obviously Newcastle are having a great season, whether I'm involved or not, I'm happy to be part of the group. The gaffer is doing amazing, the boys are doing amazing, so I'm happy to be part of it.

"And then when the summer comes we'll assess and we'll see what the best move is for me and the club moving forward."

Getting a start with NI was a lift for Lewis. "It felt good to be on the pitch, to be honest. I've had a tough time over the last couple of years or so just with injuries and health and finally my body's in a good place; I'm ready to play, but unfortunately I'm not getting the game-time I would probably like at Newcastle.

"So coming away with my national team is always a pleasure and I'm happy that Michael [O'Neill]'s put the trust in me, even though I haven't got the minutes in my legs, to go out and perform for the team - so I'm just happy to get on the pitch."

Jamal insisted he did not doubt his ability to perform well on the international stage: "I think if I'm if you're not performing in training or whatever over the last couple years, like I said having niggles, you have doubts going onto the pitch if you can hit the levels that you know you can - but I've been in a good place for a long time now, just kind of almost like a lion ready to come out his cage.

"Obviously the fans, club-wise and internationally, don't or can't see that on a day-to-day basis and when I'm training, but I feel good, feel healthy, I feel happy, so I just want to share that on the pitch week in, week out now."

Qualifying for NI through his Belfast-born mum, he made his first senior start five years ago, and is keen to participate in the tournament in Germany:

"The Euros is next summer, we want to be there, so we haven't really got time to kind of find our feet. I'll play as big a role as I can to help the boys find their feet as quickly as possible.

"For me personally, it's inspirational to hear the older lads talking about Euro 2016. Coming into this group, I just missed it, but the group has shown in the last few campaigns that we are within touching distance.

"Obviously before that they had made it, so we want to achieve that success again we want to make it to these big competitions - the competitions that everybody wants to play in and I believe with this group we if we hit the ground running, we're able to do that.

"You see a lot of talent, energy and legs in this group. So if we can click and connect them and get the goals and keep clean sheets, then we can put a good run together."

Even though it was 'only' San Marino, Lewis still takes positives from the 2-0 win on Thursday night, ahead of tonight's first home qualifier of this campaign, against the Finns at Windsor Park.

"Confidence is such a big thing in football, I know that personally. If you start to doubt yourself or that your teammates, you're not going to get the best out of each other, so I try my best to bring as much positivity and just encouragement to the group so that the lads feel comfortable.

"And then we can just all be moving in the right direction, which is key. So that's what I'm looking forward to."

He was certainly looking forward in Serravalle, playing as an attacking left wing-back, and setting up the second goal for Dion Charles with a fine cross from the byline.

"With Michael coming in we wanted to set a statement, play on the front foot, and that is what we did. Obviously we could have had a bit more quality up in the final third but we're happy with a clean sheet and we weren't really in any danger during the game.

"We're happy; there are some things to build on but we're happy with the three points."

Lewis still featured under Michael O'Neill's predecessor Ian Baraclough, but is happy to have the familiar face back in charge:

"I saw Michael for a coffee a couple of weeks ago before the squad met up, we just had a catch-up.

"Obviously with him going away and being manager of Stoke we didn't have much communication after he left the national team, so it was just good just to touch base and it's the small details that go a long way in football.

"Just having a catch-up with him and talking about how he wants the team to play and what part he sees me playing; that means a lot to you and it makes you take the responsibility with a lot of new and young players coming in and I feel like I can help and bed them in quickly and that's what we've got to do."

Brighter nights ahead for Jamal Lewis – continuing today.