Yesterday we caught up with Wellington Phoenix player Clayton Lewis, who is now back in New Zealand – and in quarantine – following his OlyWhites side reaching the Quarterfinals in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics for the first time.
Yeah it was pretty tough to take [the Quarterfinals loss], but at the start it was like “can we win a game at the Olympics?” – and then we did that in the first game, and from that game we had a sort of belief that we could make history again and go even further.
A proud Wellingtonian, Clayton joined the Nix last season and went on to play in all 26 matches – including 24 starts – in his first A-League season. The 24-year-old midfielder registered 45 key passes for the Nix (second only to Dávila’s 49) and was second in minutes played with 2,060; he also registered two goals and an assist – his maiden A-League goal coming in the Club’s 4-1 demolishing of Melbourne Victory on 24 March.
In May this year, Clayton penned a two-year extension with the Club, ensuring he remains in the yellow and back through the 2022-23 A-League season.
Clayton reflects back on his breakout A-League season and playing in the no. 6 position, what he got up to during his (short) break and how he’s preparing for the 2021/22 season.
What have you been up to since the end of the 2020/21 A-League season, and what do you like doing when you’re not playing football or training?
I tried to get in as much travel as I can, but obviously with Covid it’s been pretty hard. So me and my girlfriend [Narelle] were able to go down to Queenstown for a couple of nights which was nice.
Then after that, it was training for Olympics and preparing for that massive journey – so not much of a break for me!
When I’m not playing football or training, I like playing basketball, I’m a sporty person so I really enjoy playing basketball and being able to hang out with my mates too, you know going for a coffee, just relaxing and catching up with them – talking about old times, what it was like at school etc.
For me that’s quite key to staying positive about everything, having that time away from football when you can.
What was it like to be over in Tokyo for the Olympics?
It was a weird one, because as much as we all wanted to go out and explore and see what Tokyo is all about, but it was quite difficult because of Covid. So all the players were kind of locked away in our own isolation bubbles during the Olympics, all we were allowed to do was go from our room to our dining room and back, travel to and from training – that’s all we were able to do.
We’d get our Covid tests every morning, we would do our weight training and we get regular temperature checks, everything was pretty strict there – but obviously it was all for our own health and safety as everything wanted to make sure the Games went ahead, so we were happy to do it.
Overall I think we adapted pretty well to the situation, and it helped that he had a good squad of boys here.
Looking back on your Olympic journey, what are your thoughts on the OlyWhite’s success?
Yeah it was pretty tough to take [the Quarter finals loss], but at the start it was like “can we win a game at the Olympics?” – and then we did that in the first game, and from that game we had a sort of belief that we could make history again and go even further.
We definitely gave our all in that game and with penalties it can go either way; unfortunately for me I missed mine, but it’s one of those things I can look back on now and grow from as a player.
All of the boys worked extremely hard to get to where we were, so just credit to the boys and the staff for what they did over there. And now I can look back on the tournament and just enjoy the experience, and start to look forward to next season as well.
Looking back on last season in the A-League, what are some positives you took away from that campaign?
Last season, it’s a tough one still to think about now, the only real positive for me was that I played in every game which was a big achievement for me – especially with it being my first season in the A-League.
Unfortunately we didn’t make the top six but I think another big positive we can take away is that we didn’t really get outplayed by any other team, we never looked like we were in too much trouble – most of the time it was our own mistakes which led to goals [against us].
And we had a good run at the end, going the last 11 games unbeaten so I definitely think we can take that into next season. I think it’s crucial for us to start the season well, over the past few years we haven’t always done that – winning that first game will give us confidence going forward.
While there are a few players who have left, we’ve bought in some quality players as well so hopefully they can slot straight in and we can hit the ground running – I’m looking forward to getting out of quarantine and getting stuck into training with the team.
Do you feel like last season was a bit of a breakthrough season for you, especially in that no.6 position?
Yeah I think so, I think it’s been a long time coming, especially after three seasons [at Scunthorpe United] and not getting many minutes, and then coming home and joining the Phoenix, thinking that I wasn’t going to play too much with the attacking midfielders we [already] had.
And then I found a new position at the no. 6 and I enjoyed playing there. That [decision] was all Uffy; at first I didn’t know how I would go there, but I got the ball a lot more than what I would as a no. 10 – and that allowed me to show what I could do on the ball. It forced me to learn some more off-the-ball stuff too, and overall I really enjoyed it – hopefully I can cement that spot for next season.
I’ll admit I did love to play number 10 and play higher up the field in the past, but the way that the Phoenix play and how the 6’s get on the ball a lot, I actually really enjoy it back there; so I’m happy to stay in that no. 6 role and work alongside Alex Rufer or one of the new guys coming in.
I’ll be happy to do whatever really, and I’m looking forward to another good season.
You’re now in MIQ with the other OlyWhites players in Christchurch; how do you manage the load as you transition back to pre-season?
It’s been a good start [in MIQ] so far, hopefully, we can just ease our way through and hopefully it doesn’t take a toll on us. A few of us took the Playstations into MIQ and we’ve already set up a ‘Pro Clubs’ season on FIFA21 – there’s a few of us in that, but it’s getting a little bit toxic with some of the boys being a little bit selfish haha.
There’s not going to be much of an off-season for me and the other boys [in MIQ], we’ll get back and then we’ll be straight back into pre-season training. It’s tough but it’s also our job – we’ve got these two weeks off but it’s not really, we have to make sure that we come back into pre-season as fit as we can.
At the moment I’m feeling pretty fit, the way Danny [Hay] had set up all the training sessions over in Tokyo was tough so we’re all feeling pretty fit.
Looking ahead to the 2021/22 Season, what is the team’s mindset and what are your personal goals?
Personally my goals for this season are ‘can I continue to play every game in the season?’, ‘can I get some more assists and score some more goals?’ – I think that’s quite key for the position I’m playing in.
Can I do more for the team, and I think it’s going to be tough at times, but whoever is going to be battling for those positions I know we’re going to give it our all, and I just can’t wait to get back.
For us, our goal is to at least make the top six, but I think we can push even further forward – I want to get a top two finish and go straight into that semi-final spot. So that’s a big one for me, and I’m going to be doing my hardest to stay as fit as I can, and have a great season with the Phoenix.
And we want to play at Sky Stadium too but it’s one of those things that’s out of our control – I know all the staff and players want to be based in Wellington next season, and I know the Club and the A-League are working towards making that happen.