As featured in our matchday programme, we speak in-depth to midfielder Lewis Spence about his career to date and his first season in claret and blue.
Lewis, as we’ve done with the majority of the lads that we’ve spoken to this season, we’ll start at the very beginning. Where do your early memories of football come from?
It was basically as soon as I could run about, playing football with my mates. I joined my local team, Blue Brazil Boys Club, at about seven years old. I was there for a few years until I was nine or 10 and I started to get interest from Rangers, Celtic and Hearts. Firstly, I went to Rangers on a trial for a couple of months, but I never ended up getting signed, so I went back to my local team again. Dunfermline came in for me, but at that time and at that age, my local team were just as good as them. I was about to sign for Dunfermline, but I changed my mind, as I didn’t fancy it. I was still a young kid.
Was that more of an enjoyment factor and not wanting to take football too seriously at that age?
At the time, I just felt that Dunfermline’s team at that age level wasn’t as good. I just didn’t enjoy it. I was 10, wasn’t enjoying the football, wasn’t enjoying the training and I just didn’t fancy it. I don’t know really what it was. I felt that my Boys Club team could beat the Dunfermline side. I don’t know whether it was the coaches, or the training, but I backed out and it was probably the right decision in the end.
You did end up leaving Blue Brazil though for a professional side in Hearts of Midlothian. Talk us through that move.
It was my dad who knew I could always play at a better level and I’m sure he contacted Hearts and said I had something and asked if I could come in to trial. Football clubs will always get calls from dads saying their sons are good, but he did manage to get me a trial.
What made you fancy Hearts to leave Blue Brazil, that you didn’t see in Dunfermline at the time?
Hearts is seen as a level up and it was that in terms of facilities. The facilities at the time for Dunfermline were the same as what I was getting with my local team.
How did your trial go at Hearts then?
From the first day, they wanted to sign me. I did well and I signed as soon as they offered. I was there at Under-11s, just before we went to 11-a-side. I know it’s only seven-a-side, but I had a really good season, scored a lot of goals and at the end of that season Rangers came back in for me. It was a no-brainer for me - I’m a Rangers fan as well, so I signed there for the Under-12s.
To be a fan of Rangers, that must have been an incredible experience for you, even if it was just at youth level?
It’s a different world at Rangers - the facilities are amazing. It was great to be there from Under-12s through to Under-16s. I learnt so much - professionalism, training, standards and playing with the best players in Scotland in that age group. I went on pre-season tours and tournaments and played against teams like Real Madrid in Spain and it was great to do that. I was really enjoying it up until Under-15s when I was still under-developed. I was small and at that age they wanted to go down the route of wanting big lads, so I wasn’t getting played. Right at the start of my Under-16s season, I left Rangers to go back to Dunfermline.
You mentioned earlier that Celtic were interested at a young age. Could you ever have seen yourself going there being a Rangers fan?
At a young age, if you’re half decent, both Rangers and Celtic want to take a look at you. Any interest in a player at any age and level involving one will involve the other too. My old coach at Hearts ended up going to Celtic as well, so there was a link there. With Rangers being interested, I was always going there, even though I’d been rejected by them a year before. I feel like I had a point to prove when I went to Hearts. I played against them and scored a few goals against Rangers. Even though it was seven-a-side, you want to do well. As soon as the interest came, I wanted to go there.
We know you won’t have experienced an English Premier League Academy, but we’ve spoken to a number of lads this season who have said about their experiences in them. Do you envisage the one you experienced at Rangers to be up to the level of those in this country in the top flight?
I would probably say so. Obviously, like you said, I’ve not experienced an English one, but Rangers and Celtic are massive clubs all over the world and the facilities are great. They attract all the best players in Scotland and beyond. I’ve been at Celtic’s training ground as well as being based at Rangers’ and it’s different level from anything else in Scotland. There are a few other teams who have decent facilities, like Hibernian and Hearts, but Rangers and Celtic are out on top. It was great to have five great years there and they had the best of everything, that’s all I can really say about it.
We all know Rangers and Celtic are the big clubs in Scotland. Do you appreciate their stature at that age and the importance of the rivalry?
Definitely, even at 11 or 12 years old, they drill it into you, particularly the rivalry. Even when you’re playing Dunfermline or Hamilton, everything at Rangers was about winning. A lot of clubs at that age is about learning and if you lost, it didn’t matter, but at Rangers it was all about winning. When we were playing lower teams like Queens Park, we were beating them eight-or-nine-nil and the mentality was to go and beat them by 12 or 14 goals. It’s put me in good stead. I feel like I am a winner and I take training and everything I do seriously and I think it’s because of that. Even when we went away for tournaments, playing big teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid, we went there to win. It wasn’t just to make up the numbers. You had to have the right mentality to play for one of the big clubs and a lot of players cannot deal with that.
It’s ironic we talk about Rangers wanting to win, win, win, that was the last season the first team won the SPL until… I can say it because it’s virtually mathematically the case barring something extraordinary… this season.
In the last decade, it hasn’t happened, but you have to remember they have had to rebuild after being put down to the bottom league. It’s taken a long time for them to get back to where they are now. We’re going to win it this year, but it’s been a long time. They’ve come back from the bottom and it’s better for Scottish football that both sides are up there competing.
Did you ever think in the back of your mind, when they did get put down to the third league, that you might have a chance of playing for them professionally?
I’ve always said in my career, if there’s one team I would sign for, it would be Rangers over anybody. When they went to the lower leagues, I was 17 and I played against them. It’s difficult, it had been in the back of my mind, but more so when I was at Dundee playing in the SPL against them in men’s football properly. I always thought that if I could do well, I could maybe get interest, but it never happened. I just felt that they were at a different level, even though they were in the same league. Look at the players they’ve got now. I always wanted to do well against them.
Back to what did happen, it must have been a big decision to leave Rangers at the start of that Under-16s season?
My dad did a lot for me. Realistically, there was more chance of me playing first team football there than it was for Rangers. That was just a fact. Not many players go from Under-12s through to the first team for Celtic or Rangers - it just doesn’t happen. Leaving was probably the best decision I ever made. I went to Dunfermline at Under-16s and ended up going full-time, training with the first team. They were in League One then, but so were Rangers. At 16 and 17-years-old, I was playing first team football, so it definitely was the right decision for me in the end. I was getting game time, playing with good players, playing men’s football. That’s when I met a great manager in Jim Jeffries, Neil McCann and John Potter as well who all did so much for me.
Ironically, you made your professional debut for Dunfermline against Rangers didn’t you?
They were in League One at the time and so were Dunfermline, so I made my debut against them.
Especially at that age, what’s it like playing against the team you support?
It was great. In my debut, I only got five minutes or so, but it was a TV game, so it was great for me and my family. I made my debut at a young age and against Rangers, so it was a great moment. It was weird because I made my professional debut against them after I’d just turned 17 in League One and I made my SPL debut with Dundee against Rangers at Ibrox. It’s weird that it happened like that, but it was a great experience to play against those teams. Going to Ibrox, there are 49,000-or-so fans there and when they came away they packed out their end. It’s always better playing against the best teams and I always felt like I had good games against them and I always enjoyed it.
How do you put it out of your head that you have supported them all your life because every other weekend you want them to win, don’t you?
It’s weird but for some reason I wanted to beat Rangers even more. Whenever I played against Rangers or Celtic, you wanted to win. Obviously, as a Rangers fans, you want to beat Celtic really badly, but I wanted to beat Rangers even more.
Was that to prove a point or to show them what they’re missing, or what you can do?
I never saw it like that. The mentality was to never ease off just because it was the team I supported. I don’t know what it was, but I was always more gutted when we lost to Rangers. I guess all my friends and family, as well as myself, are Rangers fans and I didn’t want to lose 4-0 and get that. It really was a great experience to play against them. It’s what you play football for.
If you’ve been in a first team environment since you were 16, you’re coming up to 10 years in that environment. Does that make you feel old?
I know, I do find myself looking at my age more. I’m 25 now and that feels like a long time ago, but your career doesn’t hang about. I was always hungry. Dunfermline are quite a big club in Scotland and got done with administration when I was there, similar to Rangers. When I first signed, they had 10 points deducted in the Championship at the time. I signed my professional contract and at the time, there was a bit of uncertainty with where my football could take me. They ended up going with the youth players, got rid of a lot of the bigger earners. Jim Jeffries went down the youthful route and that’s how I got in. In a blessing, for the club it wasn’t the best, but for me, it gave me a shot of being in the first team. Neil McCann was the assistant and saw something in me and he’s been a father figure for me ever since. I did believe I was good enough to play for the first team at 16, it wasn’t just filling a place, I genuinely did feel I was just as good at that age. That was my mentality, I wanted to get in the team and push people out of the way to get there. I was really hungry and driven and I felt like I deserved to be there.
In England, not a lot of people watch or know about that level of football, so how would you describe it?
Don’t get me wrong, League One there is mostly part-time. The SPL is a decent level and there are a few decent teams in the Championship and it’s not bad. Dunfermline were full-time and were favourites. It wasn’t a great league in terms of standards, because there were part-time footballers in there, but you were playing against proper men and I learnt to grow up a bit. Most weeks, they were still hard games and being under-developed - which was the reason I left Rangers - it helped me to grow up and compete against men. I can imagine the mentality down here is that the lower leagues in Scotland are really poor, but it was tough. We were full-time, the majority of the teams were part-time and we had a really bad season where we finished sixth. It helped me physically and mentality for my career, starting out. I learnt the dirty side of the game, the aggression, the late tackles and being rough and that’s why I’m the player I am today, so it helped me a lot.
Down here we sort of see the SPL and don’t look much further than that. I guess that’s the same when we look across to other countries - La Liga for example. Is there a lot of interest in Scotland for the lower leagues?
The Championship is getting better. Hearts and Dundee are in there this season and they are two decent sized clubs for that league. In the past, it has had some big clubs in there.
There are more high profile players and managers going up there too, so I guess that helps.
Before, that wasn’t really happening, but in the last year or two, it has been happening more and more. Players from League One and Two down here are going up to Scotland. I don’t know whether that’s for a change in scenery, because managers are going up there or because the leagues are getting better. If you go up there and do well, you can get in the SPL. I know a lot of English people think that Scottish football is not great but I would disagree. I feel like it’s a good standard and getting better. Look at how well Rangers are doing in Europe. Being able to play against them every few weeks is only going to make you better.
You touched on earlier about developing and learning your aggressive side. I went through your record and you’ve been cautioned 34 times in your career. It does have to be part of your game doesn’t it?
I do think in my position, you do need to get booked now and again, it’s just the way I am. It’s kind of my game anyway, but I do feel like I’ve calmed down a little bit. I didn’t realise it was 34 though. I have gone through stages. At Ross County, there was a stage where I got booked quite a bit, but then I stopped.
I don’t want to tempt fate, but there is only one red in there for two yellows. That does show that you’ve got the nous to know when to reel it in, because there have been some very early yellows amongst them.
I’ve always been like that. Back in my early days, I’d regularly get booked 10 or 15 minutes in and play the full game. I know what I’m doing and I feel like I can still influence the game on a yellow card. I know when to back out of a tackle and I know when I can still put my foot in.
You got yellow cards in six of your first nine Scunthorpe games. Was that you finding your feet in English football. I’ll be the first to admit two or three of those were very harsh cautions, though.
When I first came down here, I was trying to prove a point a little bit too much and trying to do everything. I was trying to win every tackle and I was a bit late of a few of them. Some of them were a little bit stupid and me being a big immature. I talked to the manager and my agent and I just had to calm down a little bit and I feel like I have. A few times earlier in the season, I was getting booked early and I was getting taken off, but now I’m not as rash or running about like a maniac, like I was in the first 10 games or so. I’ve definitely calmed down.
Now we’ve got discipline out of the way, I’ll just reflect on your experience before coming to the club. At Ross County, you were part of the side that earned promotion and won silverware. How good was it to be part of that?
We won the Irn Bru Cup Final, which is a small cup final. I left Dundee in the January window. A new manager came in there and wanted to get his own players in, so I left and went to Ross County in the Championship. They’d just been relegated from the SPL, so I went there straight into a winning team with a winning mentality and I really enjoyed it. In six months, we won the league and that cup, so it was great. The season before at Dundee, we were in a relegation battle and it’s not great to be fighting and scrapping every week. It made a nice change to go to a team that was winning most weeks. We were coming back from 2-0 down to win and I’d never had that in my career, so I really enjoyed that. Confidence was high.
When you look at your experience, you’ve seen both sides of it haven’t you? You’ve played well in excess of 100 games in your career and have had the highs and lows already.
I’ve been on both cycles and I know what it takes to stay up in leagues and I know what it takes to go and win a league as well, so I’ve got that in my locker.
Did your experience of scrapping and fighting for every point help you when you first came here?
I feel like I’m quite experienced and I’ve been through quite a lot. I’ve been to different teams and I’ve played at the highest level in Scotland and played against the biggest teams up there. I felt like coming down here, I could deal with anything. The only thing coming down here, it was a bit of an unknown for me. I knew the teams, but I didn’t know how each team played and about individual players. I’ve been picking that up going along and I can’t wait to experience English crowds when the fans are back in as well.
How hard was it to make the decision to cross the border?
It was always in my head to come down to England to play. I just feel that unless you’re at Rangers, Celtic, Hibs, Hearts, Aberdeen, etcetera, England is probably the place to be. There are more teams and more opportunities. It entered my head for a couple of years before I came here to come to England. When the call came along, it was a no-brainer for me.
How was it sold to you?
When the interest first came, the club was in League One at the time and looking from afar, Scunthorpe is a big club. When the team got relegated, in my head it was about coming to the club and eventually trying to help Scunthorpe get back up. Signing for the club, it felt like a team pushing in the right direction and I do feel like we are going to push in the right direction. Definitely when I first came here, I felt like I was one of the oldest in the team and it’s the first time in my career I’d felt that. I’d always been one of the youngest.
Was there any other interest from any other English clubs in the past?
There were a couple of clubs interested, but interest is just interest. Scunthorpe were the first club to come to me with a concrete offer in England. I remember years ago, I could’ve come down to York when they were in League Two and Jackie McNamara was there. A few of the Scottish lads came down, but I decided not to do that. I wasn’t ready, I was still young, but I felt like this was a really good time to come down.
It’s been a bizarre season anyway, but one thing you won’t have been used to in Scotland is the sheer volume of games and different opponents to face. How do you feel you’ve coped with that?
It’s a lot different. In the top league in Scotland, there are only 12 teams. Here it’s a crazy schedule and it’s been quite tough. There have been hard, hard games and having eight games in one month, like this month, is unheard of in Scotland. I came down here for that so I’m not complaining about that at all.
I know Scotland isn’t a million miles away, but how hard has it been to move down here and away from your family for the first time, especially in the middle of a global pandemic?
It would have been a lot easier if COVID hadn’t been about. I could have interacted a little bit more with the boys outside of football and go out. It’s been difficult without that but we’ve still got the football, so we can’t complain. Hopefully, looking forward, we can get fans back in next season and things can go back to normal and my family can come down too.
That must be a big deal when you move away because no doubt your family have been a big influence on your career and to make this move without them being there directly must be tough?
It’s not been great for them. Watching the games on TV and a laptop screen is not the best, but that’s how it’s been for the fans too. They’ve paid for their tickets and season tickets to watch the whole year through a laptop screen and it’s not great for them either. We’re all in the same boat and hopefully we are pushing in the right direction to get out of the pandemic.