WHEN assessing Newcastle United’s performance this season, it is easy to downplay the significance of the coronavirus outbreak that forced the club into shutdown in December.
Prior to the closure of the club’s training ground, the Magpies were sitting 13th in the Premier League table after winning four of their opening ten league games. They beat West Brom in their first game back, but then embarked on an 11-game winless streak in all competitions that was surely attributable, in part, to the debilitating effects of Covid.
Two of Newcastle’s players – Jamaal Lascelles and Allan Saint-Maximin – suffered so badly they were sidelined for the best part of two months. Another – Federico Fernandez – has struggled with fatigue issues almost certainly linked to his Covid infection.
More than a dozen Newcastle players tested positive in the space of a couple of weeks though, and even those who were did not become especially ill suffered issues that had a major detrimental effect on their performances.
Take Jamal Lewis, for example. The full-back has only just revealed he was one of the players to record a positive test, and while the immediate impact of his infection only lasted a few days, the after-effects proved much longer lasting.
Lewis’ form dipped markedly around the turn of the year, leading some supporters to question the wisdom of his £15m signing from Norwich City last summer. In the circumstances, though, is it really any surprise if his performance level dipped after Covid took hold?
“It was a tough experience,” said Lewis. “After the Palace game, we got tested and I got notified a few days later that I had Covid and had to self-isolate. It was a tough few days for me and it took my legs from under me for a few weeks after that, which it can do to some people.
“The Premier League does not wait for anybody, so you have to get back on your job and do as much as you can for the team. But there were a lot of individuals who were suffering. Now, I am back on my feet and have got my lungs back and can really help the team – we can push on and have a really strong second half of the season.”
Lewis is a naturally-fit 23-year-old at the peak of his physical powers, but like a number of his team-mates, he was left shocked by the extent to which Covid affected his physical capabilities.
“As a footballer, you do not want to use excuses, and I take responsibility for my performances,” he said. “But it is undeniable it did have an effect on my rhythm and fitness. And having games in quick succession didn’t help me either.
“If they had been a week apart, it might have been easier, but these things happen and you have to take the rough with the smooth. It was a bad period for everyone involved in the club, but that is past us now and we’re looking to end season strongly.”
With his physical output now back to pre-Covid levels, Lewis has been working to ensure his mental wellbeing is also where he wants it to be.
“As a footballer, you will have sticky patches in your career,” he said. “Sometimes, you have to reassure yourself that you are the player you can be. As much as it is physical, you have to be strong mentally and dig deep. I pride myself that I get over tough patches in my career and move on to another gear.”
His next test comes at Chelsea on Monday night, when a patched-up Newcastle side will attempt to spring a surprise against a Blues team that are unbeaten since Thomas Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard at the end of last month.
Newcastle will be big-priced outsiders as they attempt to claim what would be only a second league win at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League era, but while the Magpies’ recent record at Chelsea’s home is abject, Lewis has some fond memories of taking on the Blues.
“I actually scored my first ever goal against them for Norwich three years ago,” said the Northern Ireland international, in an interview with Newcastle’s official website. “I would have loved a few more by now, but it was my first FA Cup game, I’d only made my debut a few weeks earlier, it was on the BBC and it put my name in the headlights. We lost on penalties, but it was a really good experience and gave me a real taste for it.
“I’m personally really happy with how things are looking at the moment. We’re confident going into games and looking to impose our own style on it and show fans we can play attractive football on the front foot. Sometimes, it’s not going to work, but at least you have your own style.”