AFTER unsuccessful trials at clubs, taking up another sport and almost leaving the game before giving it another go, Alex Mitchell could have been forgiven for thinking it wasn’t meant to be in football after leagues were suspended early last year.
It’s nerve-wracking at the best of times for a young player getting to that all-or-nothing juncture where they’re going to be told whether they have secured their first professional contract.
Mitchell, 19, trialled at clubs including Reading, Chelsea and Aldershot and when none of them wanted him it looked like a career in rowing and a scholarship to university through that sport would be his next move.
He was with Oxford Football Development but rowing had almost completely taken over to the point he was only playing one game a week.
Mitchell was relaxing at home one afternoon after school when his dad received a phone call from Barry Dunn, the head of recruitment at Millwall’s academy.
Despite being an hour-and-a-half late for training after a journey from Windsor to south London, giving him only half an hour to make an impact, Millwall were impressed.
Mitchell progressed from the under-15s to earn a scholarship, before a decision was due towards the end of the 2019-20 on professional deals for the youngsters.
It was the same group as Hayden Muller, who has since played four first-team games and signed a new deal two weeks ago.
The suspension of football in March 2020 meant those players couldn’t do anything more on the pitch to convince, and had to wait long months until the club told them in the summer if they were being retained or let go.
“I think it was worse than in previous years, my year had it worse because of Covid,” Mitchell says. “It’s nothing to do with Millwall, they did the best they could.
“We stopped around February and I didn’t get told until months and months after. Every day your parents are asking, ‘what’s happening, what’s happening?’ You’ve got no information.
“It was on a Zoom call when I got told. Mum started crying, dad was over the moon. I know I’m not starting first team, playing week-in, week-out, but to say you’ve got a professional contract, it’s mental.
“I’d signed at under-15, a schoolboy contract. You get told about a scholarship at under-16s. I remember getting told and it didn’t hit me until I got the tracksuit. I got a tracksuit after a game against Watford and you’re just mesmerised: ‘Jeez, I represent Millwall Football Club.’”
Mitchell took up rowing in school and said it built his resilience. So, too, did being rejected by clubs, not that he appreciated that fully at the time.
“It’s demoralising, to be honest,” he says. “I never took school that seriously until I got a little bit older. Football’s your life, playing with your mates.
“My dad never pushed me or anything but he’s always been very, very supportive. I remember I’d get rejected and it got to the point when I was about 14 and I thought, ‘I’m just going to nip this in the bud now’.
“I started rowing at Windsor Boys’ School with [director of rowing] Mark Wilkinson and others. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that.
“The dedication, being around those people, I wouldn’t be that resilient without doing rowing so that was huge part of getting me back into football.
“It’s an awful sport! The rewards are there, but I’ll be honest it’s a shocking sport. I don’t know why people do it for a living. You do get addicted to it, don’t get me wrong, but the money isn’t the same as football, not that I’m in football for the money.
“You’ve got to be a very well-grounded person to do rowing, otherwise there’s no point in doing it. The dedication is ridiculous.
“I’d probably get there for half-six, seven-ish [in the morning]. Luckily the rowing club was with the school so it kind of worked out perfectly because you’d finish at half-eight and then go straight to lessons.
“Lunchtime you’d hang around the gym and then after school you’d be rowing again.
“I was maybe playing a football game on Saturday and that was it. I honestly thought I was going to go to uni through rowing because there are a lot of scholarship opportunities.
“So I took it really, really seriously. Every morning I was there, but luckily Millwall came calling and the rest is history.”
His initial experiences at Millwall were also an eye-opener and character-building. Mitchell admits he didn’t have to “graft” growing up as he came from a stable family with both parents having successful careers.
When he first went to the Lions he met kids who hadn’t been so fortunate.
But there was a more pressing concern on his way to his first training session, caused by London traffic.
“It was quite embarrassing, actually. My dad got a call from Barry Dunn. I don’t even think my coach [at Oxford] knew about it, Barry Dunn called my dad directly,” he explains.
“It was straight after school. We were chilling out. It was four o’clock and training was at five. He told me and asked if I wanted to go. I thought, ‘I’ve got nothing better to do, I might as well just see what happens’.
“Obviously you could think worst-case scenario, but I’ve always been the kind of person mentally where I feel like I can do anything. The only barriers are the ones you put yourself.
“I was like, ‘fuck it, why not, let’s try it’.
“I remember this as clear as day. We left at four o’clock for the training session at five. Obviously Windsor to south London – Eltham – is not a nice trip at all, it’s an hour and 45 on a good day.
“We did a Sat Nav through London and it took two-and-a-half hours, it was ridiculous. I remember, I turned up for the last half an hour of training. On my first session I’m an hour-and-a-half late for training!
“Do you know when you turn up for the last 11-a-side game? I turned up for that and just did well, I think. Everything went from there.
“You get a lot of stick. When you get to that age it’s a ruthless environment. I think I struggled quite a lot throughout my school days, being from Windsor you’re kind of in a bubble, everything’s handed to you on a plate. I come from luxury, if I’m being honest. I’ve never had to graft for anything, my parents have always been in a great position, which I’m very grateful for.
“I was kind of in a bubble and you’re meeting kids from south London some of whose dads aren’t there, some of whose mums aren’t there.
“It’s ruthless, just the way they are with you, they won’t say hello to you.
“You grow up really quickly there.”
Image: Millwall FC