Gareth Southgate praised Rico Lewis after the teenage debutant bounced back from a contentious penalty call made against him during an impressive first England appearance away to North Macedonia.
An unbeaten year that started with victory in Italy ended with a 1-1 draw away in chilly Skopje as the Euro 2020 runners-up rubberstamped their place among the top seeds for next year’s finals.
Monday’s trip to Skopje represented England’s final match on foreign soil before Euro 2024 gets under way in June, and Southgate’s side had to dig deep after falling behind to a team they beat 7-0 in June.
Lewis was unlucky to see a spot-kick awarded against him shortly after Harry Maguire survived making a clumsy challenge in the box, with Enis Bardhi scoring after Jordan Pickford saved his initial spot-kick.
England returned from the break strongly and Southgate quickly turned to Harry Kane, who immediately forced Jani Atanasov into an own goal that would seal the draw.
“I thought the performance was good, mentality was excellent,” England boss Southgate said after bringing the curtain down on 2023. “I thought we played well, we totally controlled the game.
“It was difficult with the way that they defended and the pitch not easy to get the perfect final pass.
Not the win we wanted but an unbeaten qualifying campaign and top of the group. Bring on the Euros in the summer! Thanks for all the support pic.twitter.com/XWYqWq2Ha6
— Harry Kane (@HKane) November 20, 2023
“But I thought there were some excellent performances within the game.
“I didn’t think that was a penalty. The one before might have been, so maybe that evened itself out.
“I’ve zero to say about (the VAR) which probably tells you everything.”
Thankfully Southgate was more forthcoming when it came to the performance of versatile talent Lewis.
A strong performance on his #ThreeLions debut
— England (@England) November 20, 2023
Making his England debut a day shy of his 19th birthday, the left-back was in a far more advanced position in possession and reacted well to the penalty decision against him.
Lewis caught Bojan Miovski with an arm when rising to win a header and referee Filip Glova pointed to the spot after reviewing the incident on the VAR’s behest.
Asked if that moment may overshadow the teenager’s debut, Southgate said: “Well, it shouldn’t do because he was excellent.
“His performance and then his reaction to what I know will have been a disappointment for him, but we’re not looking at him for being at fault in any way.
“His composure with the ball was outstanding and he should be really proud because we are very, very pleased with what he did.”
Southgate said there was no need to console Lewis about the penalty at half-time and instead reminded him about how well he was playing.
“We thought Rico throughout the whole game was excellent,” the England manager added. “Great composure, great resilience.
“We didn’t feel he had anything to come back from but I know sometimes as a player you might feel that.
“But we thought there was no crime, so we were pleased with everything he did.”
Lewis was the youngest starter on a night when Manchester City team-mate Kyle Walker was the elder statesman and skippered his country for the first time.
“It was a nice moment for him to captain his country,” Southgate said of the 33-year-old.
“He’s really grown in terms of his leadership. I know he’s thriving on that with his club and that will be a special moment in his career as well.”