Canaries star so nearly joined Brentford before athletics intervened in his Luton development
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It could have all been so different for Jamal Lewis and Norwich City.
The Canaries starlet could make a belated start to his pre-season preparations against former club Luton Town this evening but had things turned out differently, the left-back could have been with Championship rivals Brentford.
That is revealed by a man who knows the 20-year-old better than most, former City academy manager Gregg Broughton, who helped bring Lewis to Norfolk.
Broughton spent six years with Luton’s academy before joining the Canaries as head of academy recruitment in 2012, three years after the Hatters had slipped out of the Football League.
“That was probably the most testing period of my career so far,” he explained. “After we lost the (Conference) play-off final in Manchester against AFC Wimbledon because we knew after two years of being outside the Football League, your ability to retain the registration of players expired.
“So within 24 hours of that game, 35 of the players in the academy had been approached by other clubs, big clubs in the London area.
“Jamal Lewis funnily enough was one of those but we managed to find a loophole in the ruling and went to the FA for a tribunal to go against the Football League and the FA ruled in our favour.
“Jamal had actually gone to Brentford at the time, who were spending a lot of money on their academy at that stage, and Jamal came back to Luton on the basis of that ruling because Brentford weren’t prepared to pay a compensation fee. So he was really quite integral to what happened there but it was a really tough period for everyone involved.”
Lewis eventually parted ways with the Hatters to concentrate on his athletics career, finishing sixth in the 800m at the English Schools’ Championship at U17 level in 2013 and second in the English Schools’ U17 cross-country at Donington Park the following year.
However, he decided to return to football and signed for Norwich in 2014, where Broughton was just taking over from Ricky Martin as academy director.
Three years later he was impressing Daniel Farke in pre-season and, the other side of a knee injury, he was becoming a City regular and earning his first Northern Ireland cap.
Reports of Premier League interest from Bournemouth and Watford have even surfaced but Lewis was signed a new contract extending his terms until 2021 last summer, with the option for a further year.
“When he came back he’d lost a little bit of his hunger for football,” reflects Broughton, now working in Norway as academy manager at Bodo Glimt, having left City as part of academy staffing changes in October 2017.
“He focused heavily on his athletics at that stage, and I’d gone to Norwich by then and after a year I think he had struggled a bit at Luton because he hadn’t gone through his growth spurt and both parties decided it was better if he focused on his athletics.
“Then it was the following summer when I followed up on things and Luton hadn’t retained him. So he was a free agent at that stage and that’s when we brought him in.”
Two years after Lewis and another young full-back was following the same path to Norfolk, Max Aarons.
The 18-year-old has signed a long-term deal this summer and been given chances to impress during pre-season.”
“I’ve known both boys since they were eight years old and saw them developing at both clubs, in both roles as head of recruitment and academy manager, and when the opportunity arose to bring them to Norwich it was something that we did straight away,” Broughton continued.
“When we brought them in neither were players who came in and had everybody saying ‘we have to sign them straight away’. With Jamal it took a little bit of time, we brought him in initially as a left-back and he found his first week at the club tough, stepping up to category one standard.
“But I remember at the end of that first week, he had a really good game at Ipswich which kind of convinced the coaching staff and from there onwards he obviously continued to progress, played a number of positions in the youth team but I think we always saw him as an offensive left-sided player and Daniel Farke’s system allows him to get forward from left-back.”
He may no longer be a Canaries employee but Broughton’s influence could well prove to be rather lucrative for his former club.
• For more insight into the work of City’s academy, see part two of our interview with Broughton later this week