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EXCLUSIVE: Former Aberdeen keeper Joe Lewis on training with Manchester United – as he gives Dimitar Mitov backing

Ex-Dons keeper Lewis revealed to The Press and Journal how he ended up training with Erik ten Hag's Manchester United last season.

Former Aberdeen goalkeeper Joe Lewis, left, and Manchester United manager Erik Ten Hag.
Former Aberdeen goalkeeper Joe Lewis, left, and Manchester United manager Erik Ten Hag.

Former Aberdeen goalkeeper Joe Lewis has lifted the lid on his “fantastic experience” training with Premier League giants Manchester United during the final six months of the season.

The 36-year-old shot-stopper left Pittodrie last summer after seven years, when the remaining year of his contract was cancelled by mutual consent.

Lewis has remained a free agent since.

With the family having relocated to Wilmslow, Cheshire, where his wife’s family are from, it was Lewis’ friendship with former England under-21s squad-mate, United back-up keeper Tom Heaton – whose sons now also play football together – which led to his surprise link-up with the Red Devils.

Manchester United goalkeeper Tom Heaton. Image: PA.

Father-of-two Lewis – whose eldest son, Lenny, nine, an aspiring goalie himself, is in Manchester United’s emerging talent squad with Heaton’s son – said: “I know Tom through mutual friends, so I’d sit and chat with him on Friday evening watching our kids play football.

“He said: ‘Look there might be a vacancy and we might need another keeper – would you be up for it?’

“I said: ‘Yeah, definitely.'”

Following this conversation, Heaton dropped Lewis’ name in to the United coaches, and after a chat and a period of training with the club’s under-21s to sharpen up, Lewis joined Erik ten Hag’s first-team squad at Carrington.

Joe Lewis captaining Aberdeen. Image: SNS.

Lewis – who was training daily alongside United’s Cameroonian first-choice keeper Andre Onana, 28, former Fenerbahce goalie Altay Bayindir, 26, and Heaton, 38 – said: “I went in from November to get my fitness up with the academy.

“Then, from just before Christmas until the end of the season, I was training with the first-team.”

Explaining why the Old Trafford side were in need of an extra goalkeeper, Lewis added: “It allowed one of their young keepers who trains with the first-team, Radek Vitek, to go out on loan to Accrington and for the first-team to not be short on goalkeepers for training and the various bits they need four keepers for.

“It was a fantastic experience!

“Obviously there are some top-level players there, some great coaches and a great environment to work in, so I thoroughly enjoyed that.”

Manchester United goalkeeper Andre Onana saves a shot from Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah during the Premier League match at Anfield. Image: Shutterstock.

Lewis was impressed by United’s goalkeeping cohort up close, rating Onana – a near-£50million signing from Inter Milan – as “really good”, and said: “Training was great on the football side, but just chatting to these lads…

“Sometimes you put elite players up on a pedestal and it was nice to get to know a few of them as people as well – how they act and how they are off the field. It was a good insight.

“I had some really good conversations with Andre, Altay and Tom.”

‘Incredible’ Bruno Fernandes ‘a real leader’ behind the scenes at Man United

Lewis also described United’s skipper, Portuguese playmaker Bruno Fernandes, as “incredible” and – as a former Dons captain himself – a true “leader”.

He said: “He’s been their stand-out player, in my opinion, for a little while now, but it’s not just his quality… it’s his attitude, his work ethic around the training ground – you can see why he’s captain.

“Sometimes that doesn’t always come across on the pitch on a matchday. But around the training ground, he’s a great guy, a real leader and his quality is unbelievable.

“Some of the stuff he would do in training, and just the way he strikes a football, is incredible.”

Bruno Fernandes of Manchester United, centre, at training. Image: Shutterstock.

England’s 20-time champions United had another difficult season under former Ajax boss Ten Hag, appointed in 2022, finishing eighth in the Premier League.

Though they won the FA Cup, beating Manchester City at Wembley, there was speculation the manager could be on the way out this summer – in the wake of British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s recent investment, which has seen him take control of the Old Trafford football operation.

However, the Dutch boss will remain in charge for the new campaign.

Having been on the inside of United’s first-team squad, Lewis says he saw “a lot of positives” going forward.

He added: “Man United is such an iconic huge club, there’s always going to be talk about it, good or bad.

“I suppose that’s the pressure of playing for the club that you’re going to be in the news and spoken about constantly – you’ve got to be able to deal with that.

“I’m sure this season they’ll look to be a little bit more stable and have a little less talk around the off-field stuff and have positive attention on the team, hopefully.”

Joe Lewis on potential playing return, and what’s next

Joe Lewis revealed he could yet return to play professional football a year on from his Aberdeen exit.

Lewis was signed by former Pittodrie boss Derek McInnes and went on to be the Dons’ first-choice goalkeeper for six of his seven seasons in the Granite City, playing 271 times.

There is no shortage of clubs in the north-west of England, where he is now based – but veteran Lewis said: “If something comes up and I like the look of it, I’ll stick with it (playing).

“If not, I’ll go into whatever’s next – I don’t know yet.”

Lewis considered pursuing a career as a football agent following his Aberdeen departure, but said: “I had a good look at that, but I don’t think that’s really for me at the moment.”

Aberdeen’s Joe Lewis saves a shot from Joe Newell of Hibernian.

Another tried-and-tested route for former elite players looks the more likely option for Lewis – and it is one he has already dipped his toe into.

Admitting he is “going to get pushed into making a decision in probably a month or so if nothing comes up football-wise”, Lewis added: “A bit of private coaching, goalkeeper-y stuff, is something I’ve being doing a little bit of at the moment and I’m enjoying it.”

Aberdeen ‘fan’ Lewis on having Dons’ and goalkeepers’ backs on Sky

Lewis was part of Sky’s coverage during Aberdeen’s games against Celtic and Rangers last season, and enjoys being the pundit fighting the Dons’ corner – as well as speaking for goalkeepers – saying: “It’s nice to go to a game still having a job to do, without the pressure of having to play.

“It’s the Aberdeen stuff I primarily do, so it keeps me in touch with the club as well – and I’m obviously a fan of the club now.

“You’ve got Celtic and Rangers represented by Chris Sutton and Kris Boyd (on Sky), and they have their opinions and play their roles.

“I think it’s important we’re represented, and I try to do that as well as I can while I’m doing my bits for TV.

“From a goalkeeping perspective, there’s nowhere near enough of it (punditry), and too many pundits out there just saying: ‘he can’t get beat at his near post there.’

“They’re just throwaway comments – cliches – rather than actually giving technical advice or expertise or having knowledge on why things have happened.”

Lewis on Kelle Roos’ exit and Dimitar Mitov as Aberdeen’s new No.1

This summer Aberdeen parted company with goalkeeper Kelle Roos – who replaced Lewis as No.1 under former manager Jim Goodwin two years ago.

Last season, Dutchman Roos was criticised for his performances during a campaign where Goodwin’s successor Barry Robson was sacked, with the strain of European group stage football in the early months contributing to a disappointing Premiership campaign in which the Dons toiled to a bottom-six finish.

Aberdeen's Kelle Roos following his side's Scottish Cup defeat on penalties to Celtic. Image: SNS
Aberdeen’s Kelle Roos following his side’s Scottish Cup defeat on penalties to Celtic. Image: SNS.

The Red Army questioned 32-year-old Roos’ command of his box, as well as bemoaning his record from penalties, with clean sheets proving hard to come by.

Following Roos’ exit at the expiry of his contract, Aberdeen’s new Swedish boss Jimmy Thelin has moved quickly to land St Johnstone goalkeeper Dimitar Mitov to replace him.

On Roos’ form last term, Lewis said: “I spoke to Kelle quite regularly – he was renting my house actually – and he really enjoyed his time at Aberdeen.

“You can’t blame anyone else if you make a mistake, you have to analyse yourself, but it’s difficult for everyone in the team when there’s a lot of inconsistency.

“I don’t want to sit here and say he should’ve done this and he should’ve done that, because I’ve been in his shoes where it can be quite difficult and you go through a little loss of form.

“I thought, in general, Kelle made some really important saves in some big games – yes, there was the odd mistake littered throughout that.”

Lewis added: “I think the way the season went, there was a lot of anxiety in a lot of the games.

“So if a cross came in and Kelle didn’t come for it, it was always highlighted because everyone was sort of gasping and moaning.

“That’s normal at a football club. When things aren’t going well, smaller things do get magnified.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily Kelle’s game to come and be commanding and get crosses.”

Lewis added: “We’ve got Mitov whose come in now, who I thought last season was incredibly consistent, so hopefully there will be more consistency throughout the whole club – not just on the pitch, but off it as well.

Dimitar Mitov, left, at Aberdeen’s pre-season camp in Portugal. Image: Ross Johnston/Newsline Media.

“I think maybe Dimitar Mitov is that type of goalkeeper who is looking to come and get crosses and coming out as much as he possibly can.

“He might miss a few, but I think you play to your strengths.

“If the back-four, or back-five – whatever the manager wants to play – get used to that and form a good relationship with him, then that will be great, because if we can do that effectively, everyone wants to see that.”

Lewis’ own preferred setup is a consistent back-four in front of him, who can build “some partnerships and a good understanding”, rather than the back-three/five used by Aberdeen for most of last term.

The former Dons goalie added: “I think teams tend to fall into a back-three when the manager thinks one of the back-two is struggling for pace or needs a bit of protection.”

‘I’m looking forward to seeing what Jimmy Thelin brings’

Looking ahead to new boss Thelin’s first campaign in charge, following his much-heralded work at last year’s Swedish Allsvenskan runners-up Elfsborg, Lewis described himself as “always hopeful”.

Aberdeen manager Jimmy Thelin in Portugal. Image: Ross Johnston/Newsline Media.

He said: “You can’t keep just sacking managers and ripping apart your squad every season, because you’re not going to be building towards anything.

“Obviously there isn’t the European stuff to look forward to this season, but hopefully that allows a bit more time for the manager to get enough training sessions in where he can really try to get his messages across.”

Lewis added: “It’s going to be interesting and it’s something a bit different to what we’ve had, and I’m really looking forward to how the team and the manager deal with the pressures of that league.

“He definitely won’t have underestimated the league, but there is such a spotlight and magnifying glass on the football club and on the league. It’s intense.

“It’s all very well in pre-season – it’s nice and everyone can have a smile on their face – but you can only truly judge a manager once there’s been a bit of a difficult period.

“I hope it is plain-sailing and we’re flying, but it’s going to be interesting.

“I’ll hopefully be going up to see as many games as I can and I’m looking forward to seeing what the new manager brings.”