Rejection, golf and nightshifts at a factory: The remarkable rise of Sheffield Wednesday midfielder Lewis Wing
Newton Aycliffe, 2015. As the birds start tweeting and the County Durham sunshine begins to poke its way through the curtains of Lewis Wing’s neighbours, the then 20-year-old shuffles up his driveway exhausted from another hard night’s work.
Eyes half open, the youngster puts his key in the door, rises up the stairs and collapses on his bed to dream. It’s 6.30am and his shift hauling boxes around at a factory that makes parts for showers finished only half an hour earlier.
Six years on, after a meteoric rise that has seen him arrive at Sheffield Wednesday via Middlesbrough, Yeovil Town and Rotherham United, those hazy morning dreams of becoming a professional footballer have long been realised. But it’s been far from easy.
Wing was released from the academy at Darlington when he was 14, told as so many youngsters were at that time that while he was a technically gifted young player, he was too small to make it in the professional game.
The weight of rejection fell heavy and heartbroken, he didn’t play for two years, instead choosing to concentrate on getting his golf handicap down to five. He remains a keen player.
A nudge back into the game arrived in the most modest circumstances imaginable courtesy of his local Sunday League side, Newton Aycliffe Working Mens Club, who were managed by his cousin Jason Steele, now a Premier League goalkeeper at Brighton. Steele spent weeks talking him into it. It’s a good job he persevered.
That was in 2012 and it was soon evident Wing was likely to go places in the fiercely competitive North East non-league scene. Time was spent at Tow Law Town, once home to a certain Chris Waddle, and at Seaham Red Star before he joined ambitious Northern Premier League side Shildon AFC in 2015.
“He was a typical young lad,” said former Mansfield defender Daniel Moore, his teammate and manager at Shildon.
“He scored about 40 goals from midfield one season and he was incredible, but he didn’t have it all his own way. There was a point he just got his head down away from football. In non-league it can be hard to get your head down and keep it down if you're working alongside things as well.”
Even at that level Wing had not been an instant hit and had to fight his way towards his undoubted potential.
Months into his time at Shildon he was shipped out on loan back to Seaham in the division below, a move that Shildon supporter and North East non-league anorak Peter Sixsmith remembers as a turning point in his fortunes.
“He took that quite badly,” Sixsmith said. “I think it shook him a little bit. He saw himself progressing through the ranks and it did shake him.
“The thing is, when he came back you could see his attitude had changed. He became a very important player in a very good team.”
Wing returned to Shildon with a new attitude; more determined, tougher. He spent time on the golf course talking to Moore, who remains a close friend, about what he needed to do to make it in the pro game.
He got physically stronger and trained hard outside of the once-or-twice weekly sessions laid on in the evenings at his club. The night shifts – both in the parts factory and in the boozers – were canned.
“He decided he was going to have a proper six months to a year when he'd have a proper go at it,” Moore said.
“He loved playing football and he enjoyed going out with the lads but as soon as he had a sniff of how good he could be, he knocked it all on the head. He properly dedicated himself and had a right go at it. He's deserved it hugely.”
Moore moved him from the right wing into central midfield and as his form picked up, decided to build a team around him. Wing repaid him in spades, scoring 37 goals from midfield in the 2016/17 season and before long, word got round that there could be a bargain to be had.
Scouts from Sunderland, Wolves, Brighton and others came to see him play. Indeed, Sheffield Wednesday sent a pair of eyes to see what all the fuss was about. But once the interest of one club in particular was made clear, he was always heading in that direction.
Wing signed for Middlesbrough, the club where his father was a season ticket holder, in March 2017. Garry Monk gave him his debut in an EFL Cup win over Scunthorpe United five months later.
“He had a touch of arrogance about him on the field and that's no criticism, that was a good thing. He did a really good job for us and we managed to make a good bit of money out of him which has kept us going for a few years,” Sixsmith said.
“I thought he was good enough to go professional, he had all the attributes. Strong, very fit. He was a match winner and once word got round among the scouts it snowballed. One came to look at him, then five, then there were 10 scouts at some matches all coming to watch him.
“It was an exciting time for the club, I remember that.”
A breath under 25,000 people shuffled into the Hillsborough turnstiles on Saturday to watch Lewis Wing continue his bright start to life at Sheffield Wednesday.
And when schedules allow, the midfielder still makes the Sunday morning trip up the A1 to join a much smaller crowd in support of the club where it all re-started; Newton Aycliffe Working Men’s Club.
On the way he passes the very shower parts factory in which he used to spend long, cold winter nights daydreaming about life as a footballer.
He’s done it the hard way, but Wing dreams no more.