By Jason McKeown
In Nick Hornby’s literary masterpiece Fever Pitch, there is a brilliant chapter devoted to the hapless Arsenal defender Gus Caesar. A youth trainee at Highbury, an initially promising career goes wrong with a string of poor performances, culminating in a nightmare game at Wembley that single-handedly causes his team to lose the League Cup Final to Luton.
Caesar eventually leaves Arsenal and falls very quickly down the football pyramid; ending his playing days first in non-league circles before a couple of years in Hong Kong.
Hornby does not write about Caesar to ridicule him, but to emphasise just how difficult it is to make it as a professional footballer. He points out how Gus would have grown up being the best player at school and then at district level, before climbing through the competitive youth ranks to play for one of the biggest clubs in the country (and play 44 times for them). Yet despite this level of ability, he still couldn’t reach the standard needed.
Hornby wrote, “To get where he did, Gus Caesar clearly had more talent than nearly everyone of his generation… and it still wasn’t quite enough. […] Gus must have known he was good, just as any pop band who has ever played the Marquee know they are destined for Madison Square Garden and an NME front cover, and just as any writer who has sent off a completed manuscript to Faber and Faber knows that he is two years away from the Booker. You trust that feeling with your life, you feel the strength and determination it gives you coursing through your veins like heroin… and it doesn’t mean anything at all.”
Chris Mitchell was not a comical figure like Caesar, but there are clear similarities in how their careers played out. Mitchell was a player of notable football talent, a very technically accomplished player. We all remember that Youtube video of Mitchell smashing a volley into the net from a ridiculous distance. He could do things with the ball that the rest of us can only dream of.
Yet those skills didn’t result in the playing career he would have wanted – or that those who coached and guided him would have predicted. And here in this corner of West Yorkshire, we got a close up view of his peak career moment, and of how he just couldn’t quite climb over the wall to fulfil a professional career.
It was in the summer of 2011 that he rocked up from Falkirk alongside team-mate Mark Stewart. He’d done well in Scotland, and a move to England was a natural progression. In pre-season, Mitchell impressed for his passing ability and set piece deliveries. A player no one had heard of could prove to be our gem.
He didn’t start off great, but he was in good company. Peter Jackson’s new-look side had a terrible opening month to the season, and there were certainly bigger issues than Mitchell’s limited contributions. Jackson resigned after only five games, and a home game with Barnet, two days later, offered the potential for a volatile atmosphere from fans fed up by yet another false start.
It was cue to the Chris Mitchell game. City earned a badly-needed first win of the season – Mitchell set up three goals in the 4-2 victory. Brilliant crosses for James Hanson (twice) and Guy Branston to help the Bantams recover from going an early goal down, and he was even involved in the fourth, providing a through ball that sent a rookie young striker named Nahki Wells away to score a first goal in English football.
Mitchell was simply outstanding. Playing on the right wing but with no pace to beat his man, the rest of the team simply fed him the ball and he sent over glorious crosses that Barnet could not live with. It was one of the finest individual displays of that era; evidence that Mitchell’s technical ability could flourish through the hustle and bustle of League Two football.
Colin Cooper was the caretaker manager that day. Watching in the stands was a proud Archie Christie. The recently appointed chief scout had been responsible for signing Mitchell, and had a lot of belief in the midfielder. In an unpublished interview I did with the late Scot in 2012, he told me, “We had a number of players on our list to sign that summer, but for many reasons they didn’t get signed (they wanted much more than they were worth). I was instructed to put forward a number of alternatives, which I believed represented better value for money and better age and fitness records: namely Ritchie Jones, Mark Stewart and Chris Mitchell. Each for different reasons.
“Chris Mitchell was unlucky I thought. Colin Cooper [during his caretaker time] told me he would be playing Mitchell and knew exactly how to get the best out of him, I thought would be a good squad player and we got the chance to see what he was all about against Barnet when he had all of the assists.”
In September 2011, I was with Christie at the Woodhouse Grove training complex, shadowing him for the day for a series of articles. As we arrived a training match was taking place between the youth team and the XI that new manager Phil Parkinson had selected for the upcoming game at Burton Albion. Archie scanned the team and realised that there was one change from the side that had lost to Wimbledon the week before. Chris Mitchell had been dropped.
10 minutes later we saw Mitchell training with all the other reserve players. It was a baking hot day and Mitchell was sat down during a break. Archie went over to give him a mini-pep talk and commiserate. This is the side of football we supporters never see: the raw pain of losing your place in the team.
It wasn’t quite the end for Mitchell, but it was certainly the beginning. He didn’t fit into Phil Parkinson’s plans, as the pragmatic need to build a functional team that would keep City in the Football League took over. Yet the type of player Mitchell was – the tuck-inside-wide-player – has been a constant feature of Parkinson’s tenure. As I wrote a few weeks ago, Mitchell was the early model that has taken us to Tony McMahon.
A month later Archie had left Valley Parade and Mitchell looked even more vulnerable. Yet he was to have one more night of triumph. Sheffield United away in the JPT, a penalty shootout. It all came down to Mitchell to score the winning spot kick. He made no mistake, sending the thousand or so of us City fans in the stand immediately behind the goal into raptures. I can still picture Mitchell’s face of joy.
He deserved that, because whatever criticisms people wanted to level at him, no one could fault his effort and desire. He badly wanted to make it at Bradford City, and it was sad to see him fall short and fail to force his way into Parkinson’s long-term plans. Three days after the Sheffield United game he scored again, but the 3-2 defeat to Rotherham was a watershed moment for a handful of players that included Mitchell. He would only start once more, and eventually return to Scotland.
Back North of the border, Mitchell continued to struggle to make much of an impression, and spent the rest of his life in the lower leagues, firstly with Queen of the South. He was at Clyde this season and doing well; but having fallen to a semi-pro level and with the pressures of a regular day job to manage, he had to retire from playing and hadn’t featured since the end of January.
Mitchell’s sudden death, aged just 27, is a genuine tragedy. He spent much of his life dreaming of big things and got so close to it, and he should not be looked upon as a failure.
Because like Gus Caesar, getting as far as he did in life was a major achievement. Being so dedicated and talented at football took him to heights that millions of us can only dream of. Certainly amongst the Bradford City supporter community, who would not have wanted to have achieved the things he did? His man-of-the-match display against Barnet, scoring a winning penalty in a Yorkshire derby. My football career peaked with a two-yard tap-in during a PE lesson at school, and it died a death the day I volunteered to play right back in a Staff vs Students match – my English teacher absolutely destroyed me.
We supporters can criticise players all day long, but we don’t know really. Even the worst City players were blessed with ability that we could never come close to matching. There should never be any disgrace in narrowly failing to reach the required standard, for a profession that only 0.001% of us are actually good enough for.
So I hope that Chris Mitchell’s family are proud of what he achieved over his short life; and I hope they know that he will be fondly remembered by City fans for the moments of brilliance he showed.
RIP Chris Mitchell, a City Gent.