BILLY Mitchell insists he won’t settle for being an “average” Championship midfielder – and has someone in the dressing room to use as an example of where he wants to be.
Mitchell, 20, has already played 13 times this season and is battling for a regular spot in arguably the most competitive area of Millwall’s team.
In boss Gary Rowett’s preferred 5-2-3 formation and with everyone in the squad available, there are six senior midfielders fighting for two places.
Mitchell is ahead Ben Thompson, and he was chosen to replace the suspended George Saville over Maikel Kieftenbeld last weekend.
With George Evans set to be unavailable against Huddersfield on Saturday, Mitchell could start alongside Saville.
The other player in contention, Ryan Leonard, like Mitchell has also played right wing-back this season. The battle between those two in the middle of the park is too close to call.
Saville is Millwall’s main man in the centre of the pitch, and perhaps one of the most underrated in the Championship. Despite an impressive six goals from midfield last season for Middlesbrough, his move back to the Lions went under the radar in the summer’s second-tier business.
Mitchell revealed he recently had a conversation with Jed Wallace in which he spelled out his ambitions.
One particular area where Mitchell is keen to improve is scoring. He has netted just once in 40 appearances in all competitions.
In Saville he has plenty of knowledge to tap into as he tries to improve his goal threat.
“I’ve got a good relationship with Sav and am sure if I asked him for advice he’d do his best to give it to me,” Mitchell said.
“I was actually speaking to Jed about this the other day, about not wanting to just settle for being an average Championship midfielder. You’ve always got to want to try to have more to your game rather than just being happy passing it sideways and square.
“You have to eventually try to affect games, whether that be with through-balls or assists and goals. And obviously there’s no better person to look to than Sav.
“In that season after they came up [in 2017-18] he scored 10 goals. They are fantastic numbers for a central midfielder and if I can begin to add what he has in his game and the way he can score goals, that’s something I’m working on really hard to do.
“Against Bristol City I had a chance when Sav set me up right at the end and perhaps should have scored. Away to Barnsley I had a half-chance right at the end of the game.
“I feel like I’m getting more of those types of opportunities. Now it’s just a matter of having a bit more quality and converting them.”
Mitchell does extra work on his game at the training ground.
He continued: “Obviously you have to do your training with the team and whatever drills have been laid out for that particular day with the group the focus. But then I think at the end of training it’s important to do some individual work.
“The coaches are always very helpful with that, Robbo [Paul Robinson], Ads [Adam Barrett] and Dave Carolan as well. Whether that be working in tight spaces, or, I’ve worked quite hard this season on my ability to switch the ball with a flat trajectory trying to get it out to the wing-backs and switch play. That’s developed a little bit.
“And also the finishing aspect, arriving into the box late and having a bit more composure to put the ball into the back of the net.
“These things take time, it doesn’t happen overnight.”
As well as helping each other out with things, the battle is fierce every day to secure a place in the team.
“Definitely. We all support each other and that’s ultimately being a good team player, but that’s not to say we all don’t also want to be the first name on that midfield part of the team sheet each week,” Mitchell said.
“All you can do is just try to be the best version of yourself in training every day and in games. I feel like I’ve had some opportunities coming on to try and affect games as a substitute for the last 20 minutes. I feel like I’ve done pretty well.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to crack that midfield position soon. All you can do is try to the give the gaffer a difficult decision.
“I think every one of the players in those midfield positions has a slightly different set of skills. Perhaps who he selects might also be depending on the opposition as well as form.”
One player who has been a fixture in the team, starting every league game, is Saville’s Northern Ireland international team-mate Daniel Ballard.
Ballard moved on loan from Arsenal in the summer. He has made his mark on the squad.
“I’ve been really impressed, I watched Northern Ireland’s progress quite closely as well,” Mitchell said.
“Me and Dan sit beside each other in the dressing room on match-day. Since he’s come to the club we’ve become good friends and been out with each other a few times.
“It’s fantastic when you play next to Dan, whether that’s in midfield or right wing-back, I’ve got so much confidence in him to go and win the tackles and win the headers. It makes my job, or anyone else playing next to him, a lot easier knowing you’ve got someone as solid as he is.”
Mitchell, a boyhood Lions fan, has an added advantage this season. He’s an all-action player and this is the first full season he has played with that extra shot of adrenaline supplied by post-lockdown full-capacity Den stands.
“Without sounding clichéd, it’s the best feeling ever,” Mitchell said. “Before this season I hadn’t really experienced that properly. They definitely give you that little lift which we’ve needed a few times this season.
“It’s been a pleasure so far and if we can get a few more good results they might even get a bit louder.
“I was saying to my family, it’s quite a surreal experience. After that first whistle you kind of have to pinch yourself the stadium is so loud, you have to realise it’s game-time now, get out of your head.”
After a slow start to the season, the Lions have lost just one of their last 10 games and are 10th in the table, level on points with fifth.
Mitchell added: “We as a club know that there is no team in this league that we can’t go and beat if we perform to our full capabilities.
“It’s just trying to piece all those bits of the puzzle together and have it come together on match-day, which perhaps at the start of the season they weren’t quite.
“One of those pieces of the puzzle is probably confidence.”
Image: Millwall FC