Lewis back in business

Clayton Lewis celebrates scoring for New Zealand against Myanmar in the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup. Photo: Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.nz

Young midfielder Clayton Lewis is looking forward to letting his feet do the talking again after a frustrating spell on the sidelines.

The 19-year-old showed outstanding form for his Auckland City side last season and continued to catch the eye of All Whites coach Anthony Hudson, who included him in the squad for June’s OFC Nations Cup in Papua New Guinea.

But his hopes of being a part of that success were dashed on the eve of the tournament when it was revealed he had returned a positive sample for Salbutamol, commonly known as Ventolin, after a game for Auckland City in February.

That led to Lewis having to drop out of the squad and left his immediate future up in the air. But he received the news he was hoping for at the end of July when Drugfree Sport NZ ruled there was no significant fault or negligence on his part and imposed only a one-month suspension – the lowest possible penalty.

Conveniently, Lewis has become eligible to play again in recent days – just in time for the FIFA U-20 World Cup qualifiers, which kick off this weekend in Vanuatu.

The three-cap All White is relieved to have put the ordeal behind him and can’t wait to take the field again with the silver fern on his chest.

“It’s been a tough couple of months for me but I’ve bounced back quite well and I feel like I’m fit,” he says.

“This will be the first time I’ve played in the qualifying tournament for a World Cup so I’m looking forward to it.”

Clayton Lewis was in great form for Auckland City last season. Photo: Shane Wenzlick / www.phototek.nz

Clayton Lewis was in great form for Auckland City last season. Photo: Shane Wenzlick / www.phototek.nz

Lewis – one of three senior internationals in Darren Bazeley’s squad for Vanuatu – was a member of the previous U-20 national team, who made history by progressing past the group stages of the World Cup on home soil last year.

As hosts, New Zealand qualified automatically for the tournament so Lewis is heading into uncharted territory after the squad’s departure from Auckland early this morning.

As usual with trips to the Pacific islands, the main challenge will be the hot and humid environment but Lewis is confident the Kiwis can cope.

“We’re pretty positive, all the boys gathered together the other day and we’ve had a good couple of training sessions. I think we have a really good team and am really excited,” he says.

“It will be hard but all the boys have played in quite tough conditions before and we can’t make any excuses about the weather – everybody has to play in it. It’s still going to come down to whoever is best with the ball and hopefully that will be us.”

Lewis believes the current squad compares favourably to last year’s crop and sees no reason why they can’t emulate the ground-breaking feats of their predecessors.

“This squad is a bit younger than the last one but there is a lot of depth in New Zealand now,” he says.

“It’s early days and if we qualify we’ll still have another year to prepare for the World Cup. Hopefully, the boys can get their nerves out of the way straight away and get the performances and wins that we need.”

The only other returnee from 2015 is Moses Dyer and Lewis says both feel a sense of responsibility to act as leaders.

“We feel like we have to step it up and be a role model. But, having said that, if we were to do something wrong we’d expect all the other boys to tell us. Everyone is pretty equal and there are no big guns in the squad.”

Waitakere United and Onehunga Sports player Jake Porter has been called into the New Zealand U-20 squad. Photo: David Joseph / www.photosport.nz

Waitakere United and Onehunga Sports player Jake Porter has been called into the New Zealand U-20 squad. Photo: David Joseph / www.photosport.nz

One player who will unfortunately no longer be taking part is young Wellington Phoenix star James McGarry, who requires surgery on an injured knee and will be out of action for five to six months. His place in the squad has been taken by Onehunga Sports midfielder Jake Porter.

New Zealand have been drawn in Group B of the OFC U-20 Championship and will face Cook Islands, Tahiti and Solomon Islands. Their opening match takes place on Saturday when they meet Cook Islands at Luganville Soccer City Stadium from 12pm local time.

OFC U-20 Championship Group Schedule

New Zealand vs Cook Islands
Saturday 3 September, 12pm (1pm NZT)
Luganville Soccer City Stadium

Tahiti vs New Zealand
Tuesday 6 September, 3pm (4pm NZT)
Luganville Soccer City Stadium

Solomon Islands vs New Zealand
Saturday 10 September, 12pm (1pm NZT)
Luganville Soccer City Stadium

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