A year ago, Jake Lewis was helping Maccabi GB’s U16 football team win gold at the Maccabiah Games.
His superb performances, including penalty-saving heroics in the final, caught the eye of watching club scouts, which resulted in the then 16-year-old signing a three-year contract with Maccabi Haifa.
Fast forward 12 months, and he’s already a league winner with his new side, has been coached under the stewardship of Israeli goalkeeping great Nir Davidovich and been able to train with the likes of Yossi Benayoun.
Describing how his first season has panned out, he admits it took him a while to settle down. He explains: “Getting signed by a team as renowned as Maccabi Haifa was a dream, and the first part of the season I was still on a high from the Maccabiah Games. I did though have some tough times and felt like an outsider a lot of the time, mainly because of the language. I also struggled with a couple of minor injuries that prevented me from training and playing – which is always difficult for an athlete, and especially when you’re away from your family. I wasn’t sure what to expect to be honest but it’s definitely getting better for me and I just love training, playing in games and showing everyone what a good decision it was to bring me over here!”
Enjoying every aspect of his first professional contract, he says: “I’m getting on really well with my teammates and players from all the other age groups at the club. There’s a real mix of Jews and Arabs here and a real sense of togetherness as a team and group. They all love my British accent, but sometimes I feel a bit left out because I can’t always join in on the conversations and “banter” they have due to the language barrier, but I do my best to understand them.
“I’ve trained with the first team a few times throughout the season and even more regularly during pre-season. All the coaches, especially my goalkeeping coaches Nir, Giora and Idan are always giving me advice on how to improve and I feel they are really developing me.”
Even able to make Benayoun laugh on their first meeting, he said: “It’s brilliant to know that I’ll be training with the likes of Yossi Benayoun who is a total legend. The first time I met him he made sure to introduce himself to me, and I even made him laugh when I told him I come from a family of West Ham supporters! All the players throughout the club that I’ve met have been so welcoming and encouraging and have really made me feel like I’m part of a special club.”
Admitting it’s taken him a while to feel comfortable in his new surroundings, he said: “It took me a few months to settle into my new life, surroundings and the Israeli culture, but with everyone at the club being really supportive, I was eventually able to really focus on what I’m here to do, becoming a professional goalkeeper.
“It’s taken me a while to adapt to Israeli life, but it’s great. I love the warm weather and not having to train and play in the rain all the time. The food here is incredible! I’ve become a very big hummus fan and all the fruit and vegetables taste so fresh and good here.
“I spent the New Year with my family in the UK and came back mentally stronger and determined for the second part of the season, working even harder with the brilliant coaching staff and that saw me start to produce the best form I’ve ever been in. We won the U17 league and I wasn’t on the losing side in any of my matches until the final game of the season.”
When he isn’t training with the side, he enjoys visits from his family, spending time on the beach and paying a visit to a chicken farm in Jerusalem. “One of my good friends in the team comes from Jerusalem and every now and then I go back with him and spend the weekend there on his family’s chicken farm, which is good fun,” he says. “I love spending time by the beach with other friends I’ve met through the club, it’s just a real shame I don’t get to share this experience with my family. They come as often as possible to see me, so at least every four weeks either my mum, dad, brother, auntie, uncle or cousins are over. I think about them every day and obviously miss them so much, but they’re all so supportive and encouraging and really give me the belief that I will make it to the very top.”
Learning a tremendous amount on the pitch, he says his year in Haifa, which he describes as “life transforming”, has also seen him grow as a person. “I’ve had to grow up quickly and learn how to operate independently in a foreign country. It’s been great though as I’ve become both mentally and physically stronger,” he says. “I’m more athletic and agile due to the different approach to training, but I’ve retained my English goalkeeping attributes of technique and bravery, and mixed the two into a kind of hybrid – the best of both worlds. I’ve really had to watch what I eat and learned how important diet is to my profession. I’m fitter and healthier than I’ve ever been in my footballing life.”
Being in Israel does though means he’s been caught up in the current Israel-Gaza situation, while his teammates were involved in unsavoury scenes last week when their pre-season friendly match in Austria was marred by a pro-Palestinian pitch invasion. He says: “I find the whole situation so sad in such a beautiful country, and having not experienced anything like this before I just hope the fighting stops soon for everyone’s sake.
“Israeli life, especially in Haifa, still continues pretty much as normal, despite the threats of rockets from Hamas, but I sense people are a lot more cautious when going out and to be honest I’m a little nervous about heading south towards Tel Aviv.”
But with the first 12 months of his contract safely under his belt, he’s now set himself targets for his second season. He says: “My aims are to be the first choice keeper for the U19 youth team, to win the league, maybe get picked for a national side, and at least make the bench for one of the first team games.” Though knowing this is easier said than done, he adds: “But it can only be achieved by me alone and a lot of hard work, which I’m ready for.”