EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Rico Lewis, 18, is the Thai-boxing City wonderkid ‘with the hair’ who still lives at home with his mum – and his grandad played bass for Oasis… now he stands among the collection of globetrotters assembled by Pep Guardiola
- Lewis has been a stalwart in Pep Guardiola’s side this season, regularly playing
- Ruthless Pep Guardiola is determined to keep Man City’s foot on the pedal
- DOMINIC KING: I don’t understand what football is anymore – It’s All Coming Up
You are 17 and still at school. You have made up the numbers in a few training sessions but nobody really knows who you are. Why would they? Here stands a collection of globetrotters assembled by Manchester City. Besides, plenty of kids are asked up to help during Pep Guardiola’s tactical run throughs and are effectively mannequins.
But one of Guardiola’s coaches has been in his ear. The manager has never seen you play but trusts the word of Carlos Vicens, an assistant, that there is a youngster who should travel with them for pre-season in America. The lad with the hair.
The lad with the hair joined City as a nine-year-old. He had it shaved back then, captained pretty much every academy team going and was so good that the club once signed an opposing winger purely because he had the temerity to give him a hard time in a junior game. Rico Lewis, it is now clear, was always going to become a City player.
When the chance to prove that came, he didn’t worry about impressing the superstars. A story that tells all about his character comes from the wet heat of Houston. For Lewis, his ability was of secondary concern to the team’s seating plan. He wanted to be the last man to sneak on the coach but failed. He locked eyes with Nathan Ake, sat alone at a table.
‘When you’re there for the first time, you’re just trying to find a seat,’ he says. ‘You don’t want to be in anyone else’s. The worst thing is if you sit somewhere and then have to move in front of everyone. Things like that, it’s nerve- wracking having to ask.
Rico Lewis has been described as the Thai-boxing City wonderkid who has ‘the hair’
Pep Guardiola has continually relied upon the youngster Lewis in his Manchester City team
Lewis joined City as a nine-year-old and was so good that the club signed an opposition winger because he gave the youngster a tough game
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‘Back then it was a big thing. I was nervous. The quicker I understood they’re just normal people, the easier it was to be myself.’
Initially, he never wanted to get in the way. There were similar social dilemmas in the meeting room for a Guardiola seminar, too. Lewis went straight for the front row, reasoning that he is out of sight there with the boss looking over them into the middle of the class.
Over a year on, he is still in the front row of the auditorium and still next to Phil Foden in the dressing room. It has all gone so well that at a comparative age, Lewis has racked up 500 minutes more game time than Foden, who has been a significant help behind the scenes.
If Lewis did not want to cause a scene on the coach, he definitely has on the pitch. Some are already calling for England recognition, even if Guardiola is carefully managing his development.
This season, he has been the standout in away Champions League victories at RB Leipzig and Young Boys. He scored on his professional debut against Sevilla 12 months ago, dad Rick losing a cone of chips celebrating, and has the three biggest medals in club football hanging on his wardrobe at his mum Steph’s house, where he still lives.
‘I’ve never slept with them to be fair,’ he laughs. ‘Being at home is comforting. I do what I do then go home and still live a normal life, how it was before.’
He is a man of little frill. When the boisterous section of City’s history makers booked a private jet on the hoof for a night in Ibiza after Istanbul, Lewis instead spent a quieter one in Manchester with Cole Palmer. The pair will reunite at Stamford Bridge today, something both are relishing.
He is proud of his pesto chicken pasta and makes sure to get a minimum of eight hours sleep a night. His girlfriend is attempting to make him read more, which he knows he ought to. He craves routine, reminiscing about his grandmother’s Sunday roasts.
Lewis has featured in all competitions under Guardiola this season, most prominently in the league
Lewis is a quiet character – while his team-mates went to Ibiza last summer he spent a night in Manchester with Cole Palmer
He admits to not having the attention span to watch films on Netflix and prefers spending days off out walking with his mates or browsing the Trafford Centre.
He used to play the guitar in primary school and offers that his grandfather, Dave, has a celebrity background.
‘My grandad was a bassist, he went on tour with Oasis,’ Lewis says. ‘He could probably tell you all the stories but I can’t remember. That was one of the reasons I started. He’s a big City fan as well, he’s over the moon when I play.’
In his company, you forget that here is a Treble winner of whom City think so highly that they recently handed him a five-year deal. And somebody whose performances in January, when City were struggling, provoked a revival. Those are Guardiola’s words.
A teenager who regularly plays in three different positions — right back, holding midfield or more advanced as a No 8, often picked ahead of senior internationals. He did all three when they beat Young Boys on Tuesday. The versatility, he says, gives him additional opportunities to play, a tactical understanding belying his years too.
‘You could study it [Guardiola’s tactics],’ he says. ‘I haven’t, I think it’s just how my brain works. Even before the first team, in my own head I’ve tried to be two or three steps ahead. When he speaks I’m always focusing as much as I can. It might be important later. If I don’t remember, it might hinder me.
‘In those tactical sessions when you’re 16, if you’re clever enough you can try to understand certain roles that the manager is asking of players. I’ve always been a tactical person. Generally in life as well, I think a lot about everything. I can overthink things, but that’s no bad thing in football.’
Guardiola would likely define himself in much the same way. ‘I’ve definitely got OCD. Silly stuff like if I shut the door, I’ll think I’ve not locked it. I always have my tracksuit out the night before, regardless of when we’re playing. Socks, boxers, shoes, everything, so I don’t have to think about it. Just relax. Everything has to be perfect, in its spot.
‘Mum has taught me to be humble, generally positive about as much as we can. Having respect for people, regardless of whether it’s someone you like or not. You don’t make a scene.’
If mum has moulded Lewis’ values and personality, also doing the long journeys to academy tournaments abroad, then dad shaped a diminutive youngster into somebody those who know him insist can handle himself against anyone, any size.
At a comparative age, Lewis has already amassed more than 500 minutes more than Phil Foden
Many fans and pundits have felt that Lewis has been outperforming Kalvin Phillips at Man City
The Phoenix Muay Thai boxing gym in Whitefield, a couple of miles from home near Bury, is where Lewis grew up. Rick, a two-time British champion, owns it.
As a toddler, Lewis would potter about and can first remember hitting the pads when he was three. Thirty undefeated fights as a child, he says proudly. Lewis stopped the bouts when he moved to City’s youth set-up but still trains in Thai boxing.
‘Pre-season this year I was with my dad in the gym,’ he says. ‘It’s a completely different type of fitness, really good for continuous power.
‘You’ve always got to be on your toes, constantly moving, moving your hips. It’s helped massively with balance, especially playing that midfield role with the turning and keeping your balance. Protecting the ball is a big thing for the manager, people who can keep it.’
Lewis often keeps it under duress, constantly targeted by the opposition for heavy treatment. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s pursuit of him last January felt particularly nasty, Guardiola lamenting his players for not stepping in — something Lewis smiles as making him feel ‘a bit awkward’.
He enacted retribution on Hojbjerg that night anyway, a seminal moment in his fledgling career. Now he offers pitying gestures towards anyone who attempts the same.
‘Maybe it’s because of my hair, or something like that makes people annoyed,’ he laughs.
‘The fighting was never a passion at first,’ he continues. ‘But it became something I genuinely enjoyed. People can die fighting. You’re taught to train as if you’re going to fight, which is similar to football.
Lewis revealed that he believes he has ‘OCD’ and always has his kit and tracksuits ready the night before
The youngster admitted that discipline has always been key for him in his development
‘Discipline has been key for me. There are a lot of young players who don’t have discipline. They peak too early, they think they’re the best thing. It’s not good for them. They lose focus and there’s a massive spiral all of a sudden.’
There does not appear any danger of that where he is concerned. ‘The Bayern Munich game is the one everyone remembers,’ he says, referring to a friendly on that tour of America at the home of the Green Bay Packers. ‘I didn’t want to come on. Even though it’s pre-season, for me it’s massive, it’s scary. But as soon as you start playing, I just wanted to carry on.’
The 10-minute cameo that night will live long in the memory. He was assured on the ball, making a couple of tackles, and then waltzed past two players into Bayern’s box before crashing the post from right back.
In the posh seats, there were glances. Who is this kid? They know now. The lad with the hair. His feet aren’t bad either.
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