There is a great video of Chris Mitchell on Youtube (see below) scoring a 40-yard training ground screamer against the current Torquay goalkeeper Robert Olejnik, back when the pair were playing for Falkirk. It is a superb example of the 23-year-old’s technical ability – which for numerous reasons has only been seen sporadically at Valley Parade since he joined last summer.
Like so many of the signings recruited during the close season, this campaign and move to West Yorkshire has clearly not worked out in the way Mitchell would have wanted. Aside from being unused sub occasionally, the Stirling-born defender/midfielder has not had a sniff of first team action since the Bantams exited the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy at Oldham in December. A huge amount of competition for a starting position perhaps, but the writing would appear to be on the wall. It is difficult to envisage Mitchell still being at Valley Parade next season.
Which is a real shame, because the early season performances he delivered showed huge potential – and many of his finest qualities are currently absent from City’s play. We badly lack an effective set piece taker, which Mitchell has proved he is. There is a lack of decent crosses into the box, especially compared to the high standard that Mitchell was providing when in the team. Only Kyel Reid and Jack Compton have contributed more goal assists.
Admittedly all three of Mitchell’s assists came in the same game – the 4-2 win over Barnet in August that was undoubtedly his finest moment in a Bantams shirt. He demonstrated superb quality in playing a key part in all four City goals that afternoon, as he appeared set to blossom in a right-sided midfield role which, at the start of the season, he had looked shaky performing.
Significant that afternoon too was that there was no Peter Jackson – the man who acted upon then-chief scout Archie Christie’s recommendation to sign Mitchell and team-mate Mark Stewart during the summer – after he quit two days before.
Phil Parkinson initially continued to play Mitchell, though in most of his early games the substitute board would be out early in the second half displaying Chris’ number 16 to be taken off. And then Craig Fagan entered the building, eventually taking Mitchell’s right midfield slot in terms of the way he was instructed to perform. On the sidelines Mitchell would have found familiar company in the shape of numerous summer signings been pushed out.
Mitchell still played in the cup games – and at the time the high work rate and fearless attacking approach the ‘cup side’ players produced at the likes of Huddersfield and Sheffield United captured the imagination of us supporters. Turgid league performances on Saturday from the reshaped first team struggled to inspire us; Tuesday nights at the Galpharm, Bramall Lane and Boundary Park with Mitchell and co. were a whole lot more fun.
Impressive back-to-back displays from Mitchell against Sheffield United – where he netted the winning penalty in the shootout – and Rochdale in the FA Cup earned him back a starting League Two place. But that strange 3-2 loss to Rotherham in November – which effectively brought an end to the City careers of Luke O’Brien and Steve Williams – saw Mitchell’s stock fall again with his manager, despite the fact he scored and played reasonably well that day. Just one first team appearance since – at Oldham where he played the 90 minutes and was industrious and creative in possession – and Mitchell is on the outside looking in. Yet to kick a first team ball in anger during 2012.
Back in the summer, Christie likened Mitchell to Phil Neville in terms of his versatility and the fact players of his type often go under the radar, but are key to a lot of very successful teams. A string of impressive pre-season performances taught us that Mitchell wasn’t the strongest physically or the quickest running-wise, but his ability on the ball suggested it was worth sticking with him and ensuring a place could be found in the team for his talents.
Mitchell had his rough edges – for example needing to get a more involved in setting the tempo of a game – and he was not the more polished level of player that many of Parkinson’s signings who now stand in his way are proving to be. But he was a clear symbol of the team-building, development season we were supposed to be undertaking this time out. His stalled career is a missed opportunity for the club.
Perhaps that 3-2 loss to Rotherham was the final straw that left Parkinson feeling there was no choice other than to prioritise ensuring survival at all costs, rather than allowing embryonic players the time to learn from mistakes. Whatever the thinking, the team has evolved in a different direction without Chris.
Curiously Mitchell is yet to depart City on loan, meaning there remains a slim ray of hope that he might get a couple of games at the end of the season – should relegation worries be put to bed – to demonstrate to Parkinson he can be part of next season’s plans.
If his future does, as seems more likely, lie away from Valley Parade, however, then it is sad that we have not given a raw-but-clearly-talented-player the opportunity to develop and become a more effective performer. His finest qualities remain something Parkinson is unable to find in his other players.
Let’s hope at least that – set piece and passing-wise – Mitchell’s team-mates are learning a thing or two from him while he is still sharing the same training ground.