Footballers' Lives with Philip Mitchell: I looked in the mirror and saw the worst version of myself but Glentoran secretary helped bring me to my senses
In the latest installment of our popular series, ex-Linfield and Glentoran ace Philip Mitchell discusses his spell in full-time game with Ipswich, the pain after the shock loss of his dad and why faith is so important to him.
Q. How did your career start?
A. We grew up in Casaeldona (firstly Castlemore) Avenue, a long street where every lamppost became a goalpost. You had about 20 boys in our street playing football every day. I went on to play for Windsor Rovers, my first boys' club, aged 11.
Trevor Anderson's brother George and Freddie Robinson ran that team in Belvoir. I was there for three years before joining Casaeldona Rangers, who my brother Colin had played for.
George Dunlop had come back from the 1982 World Cup in Spain and ran the team with a great local guy, Noel Garrett. One of the biggest privileges of my career was to play with George at Linfield for two years. George was a source of encouragement, had a brilliant understanding of the game and was respected.
Q. How did you end up at Ards?
A. Billy Nixon, the Ards legend, brought me to Ards after seeing me play for Grosvenor High School in 1985. I was at Ards for three years, playing in an IFA Youth Cup-winning team under Harry McIlroy.
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Robert Campbell was there, along with Paul Kee, and we all graduated into the first team. But then came a hammer blow to my family. When I was 18 my father Gerry died. We were a close-knit family, I was one of three brothers and it just came from nowhere.
Our dad was our hero. I was breaking into first-team football and needed some guidance. I left for Dunmurry Rec in the Amateur League with the help and guidance of David Neill, a local groundsman and another local man, Sam McCleary. That was a great team at Dunmurry Rec and we won the league under Bobby Hyndes and Danny Magill. Within six months of joining Dunmurry Rec I had moved onto Linfield at the age of 20.
Q. And from Linfield did you head to Ipswich Town?
A. Yes - I had two years at Linfield where we won the league and Gold Cup and I went on trial at Ipswich Town in the second season where John Duncan's tenure was coming to an end. John Lyall got the job at Ipswich in the summer and invited me across and I signed.
The local press announced me as "Is Phil the new Bryan Hamilton?" who had been the last player to join Ipswich from Linfield - the answer was obviously no! I was 22 and went straight into a first-team dressing room with players such as Romeo Zondervan, Ian Redford, Paul Goddard, Frank Yallop, Craig Forrest and Jason Dozzell, who went on to play for Tottenham.
Having been at Linfield, a thoroughly professional club, I wasn't daunted by the professionalism but the level of fitness was tough to adapt to at first and that made consistency of performance tough to achieve and I think I was just a little short of what was required to stay there. I was let go and came home. It didn't resonate on the same scale as losing my father but it was another disappointment.
Q. Were you a little disillusioned coming home?
A. It's hard because when you come back there's high expectation on you. I was a midfielder and people think you're going to be the next Graeme Souness! I had only been away for a year but I took the positives.
I had played two first-team games as a substitute at Ipswich and been 14th man for the first team more times than I care to remember. I've no regrets, I gave it a shot.
Q. Was the next chapter at Portadown?
A. Yes, I had actually agreed to sign for Glenavon. Terry Nicholson had agreed the terms with me but the deal changed at the last minute. Ronnie McFall was keen to sign me and the Ports had just drawn defending champions Red Star Belgrade in the European Cup.
The Ports were an exceptional team and I have fond memories there, but 30-odd games later I had gone on loan to Distillery.
I asked for a transfer but wasn't sure where. Billy Hamilton came in for me and he jokes 'I saved your career, Mitch' - he probably did! So the next season I signed for Distillery and we nearly won the league, finishing four points behind Linfield.
We had some really good players like Tom Cleland, Billy Totten, Roy Allen, Aiden McAleenan, Philip Dykes and Winkie Armstrong, and the system Billy and Ronnie McQuillan devised suited me. The following year we won the Gold Cup, which was special for the club. I was Player of the Tournament.
I was 28 and probably playing the best football of my career, but Distillery dropped into the bottom half of the league split in 1995 and I didn't think we were kicking on, and eventually Billy and I bailed out. Paul Kirk tried to persuade me to stay on, but in 1996 I got a call from Billy Sinclair at Glentoran who said Tommy Cassidy wanted to meet me.
Glentoran was fantastic and over the next three seasons I was fortunate to play in another league and Gold Cup-winning team for the Glens. Such was the quality available, Paul Leeman, Stevie Livingstone, Scott Young, Pete Batey, Andy Mathieson, Darren Parker and myself were all vying for places in that midfield.
Roy Coyle took over in November 1997 in my second season and we won the Irish Cup in May 1998.
In the week leading up to the semi-final against Linfield my mother Marion needed a liver transplant and she was flown to King's College in London.
My brothers and I all flew over and I called Roy and he was sympathetic. He never picked a team until an hour and a half before a game. At training on the Thursday when I returned he asked me how my head was and I said, 'Fine'. He said, 'You're playing on Saturday' and that was his smart way of saying, 'Don't worry, you have enough to deal with'.
So that gesture from Roy was great and we managed to topple the Blues in the semi-final with Andy Kirk scoring a brace. My mum got out of hospital the day before the Irish Cup final and I raced home to see her before the celebrations started. An Irish Cup winner's medal is special.
Q. Can you pick a best player you have played with?
A. As a captain, John Devine was an immense leader, a colossus of a player. I think in midfield Lee Doherty stood out as the most influential player I played with in my position, and Martin Russell could open a tin of beans with his left foot. Martin McGaughey was awesome up front at Linfield and the nicest guy you could meet in football.
George Dunlop, Stevie Cowan, Alfie Stewart, Lindsay McKeown, Alan Dornan, Paul Leeman and Stuart Elliot were sensational in their respective positions. Probably all round I would say Romeo Zondervan at Ipswich.
Q. And toughest opponent?
A. Tony Gorman, he was better at everything. I was a good box-to-box player, and I had strengths, but Tony was quicker, smarter and better than me. You sometimes wonder if players like Tony were ever truly appreciated.
Q. Would you have changed anything about your career?
A. I don't think so. I was blessed to be in great teams and at great clubs. Other players never got the chance to play for Glentoran or Linfield. I have no regrets. I was a pretty good pro who worked hard at my game.
Perhaps when I came back from Ipswich I could have gone on another trial and my old man, had he still been with us, might have advised me to do that, but things worked out okay.
Q. Did you miss your dad's guidance?
A. You become battle-hardened and have to grow up. I've a really great older brother, Colin, who has been a great support, and a terrific younger brother, Keith, who is a pastor for Crown Jesus Ministries and who probably missed out the most when we lost our dad. But you do miss the wisdom, guidance and pastoral role from a father.
My dad had a blood disorder, more commonly known now as leukaemia. He was only 54. My mum was so courageous and did a phenomenal job in keeping the family together.
Q. Do you think the game has changed much?
A. I worked for Umbro for 15 years so I noticed the balls were getting lighter and moving quicker, as were the players. It's a quicker game, and I do think the Irish League is a great product with great players, but I think in my generation there were more great players. Every team had a quality spine and great wingers.
Q. You had a go at management, how was that?
A. I was the only player to play for Roy Coyle at Linfield and Glentoran and had played under a lot of good managers and probably had some instincts for it at an early age when I was organising street teams and BB sides.
I knew how to talk to people from my time with Umbro and I was a continual student learner of the game. But Umbro was a 24/7 job and, whilst it was a whole lot of fun, it took its toll on me as well. I was Linfield Under-18 manager for two years and stepped away from it because of my work commitments.
Coaching at Linfield was hugely engaging and it was great to see Peter Thompson and Michael Gault go on to flourish. Stephen Baxter asked me to take charge of the Crusaders reserves a few years later, where Declan Caddell and Jordan Owens came through.
The Umbro role, however, was too demanding and the numbers were increasing in the Mitchell household. I also had a spell in charge of Sport and Leisure after I came back from America in 2013 and enjoyed that experience. And I helped coach a great Linfield U16 team when the boys won the NI Cup.
Q. What's it been like working for Global Premier Soccer, supported by Derry brothers Joe and Peter Bradley?
A. Joe is slightly mad but is a top professional in his field and a fearless competitor in life, while Peter is a quality human being and an excellent teacher of the game - both are good men and their parents deserve much credit. Initially I worked for Global Premier Soccer in Boston for almost two years.
Bayern Munich are their international partner in North America and Valencia became their technical partners in Europe. When I came back, I was originally charged with handling the recruitment of coaches and more recently then to set up international projects for GPS.
The Valencia partnership is fantastic, with superb people at the club in Spain for us to connect with and work alongside. I am grateful to Peter and Joe for allowing me to serve at GPS, as I am Nigel Best for giving me the opportunity to serve within Coach Education at the Irish FA and Joel Taggart and Brian Johnston for the fun when summarising on BBC Radio Ulster.
Q. You're a committed Christian and Chaplaincy Support Director for Northern Ireland Sport. How much have you enjoyed that role?
A. My job is to connect the dots and co-ordinate the work of the chaplains. Hopefully we are plugging a gap where people appreciate pastoral support for players and all staff and volunteers at the club. A chaplain has no agenda, he or she is there for the benefit of everyone.
The clubs have welcomed us and the Irish FA and Northern Ireland Football League asked us to make chaplains available for all the clubs. All the senior clubs have a chaplain and the vast majority in the Championship. We have also had the privilege of serving the senior referees.
As I reflect on the journey of my life, what is most important now is my friendship and relationship with God. I am 51 now and for however many years I have left I want to serve Him. I do often feel ill-equipped for the job in co-ordinating Sports Chaplaincy, but I do know the football environment well and where a chaplain can fit in, and with God's strength, I think He has me where he wants me for now. Chaplains care about people and they are there to celebrate life with them as well.
The work is confidential but I know the chaplains are making a real difference. Whether it's illness, bereavement, addiction or difficulties in life, the chaplain can provide a listening ear, sound advice, demonstrate acts of kindness and provide encouragement and spiritual guidance because there are times when we all need to share and talk about the journey of life. Support is there for everyone - people of all faith traditions and no faith background.
Q. A spotlight has been shone on players' mental health. Do you think there's a real demand for that pastoral care?
A. Definitely. I read a statistic that only 41% of employees would be prepared to speak to their employer if they were experiencing difficulties in their life. I think that's magnified in the sporting arena because you don't want to show any sign of weakness.
You need to be strong and show character in a dressing room. That safe space to talk to someone without involving anyone else is important. There are over 150,000 sports clubs in the UK.
When you add up all the kids and adults, you are looking at a community of around 25 million people participating in sport. That's the size of the community we are trying to serve, to help them on their journey in life, and it's a daunting task. The IFA's invite for us to partner with them in their 'Ahead of The Game' programme has been a great opportunity for us to reach out and offer our services in this area.
Q. And can you relate to that need for support after losing your father?
A. I guess players looked at me as I matured as a player and as a person and relied on my advice and experiences. Our chaplains are trained professionals and they bring expertise to their role.
In England, about 73 clubs out of 92 have a chaplain, in Scotland it's 39 out of 42. Here, 28 of the 36 top flight clubs have chaplains. That speaks volumes of how they are received.
Q. When did you become a Christian?
A. At the age of 14. We were a church-going family and I was the first one to put my flag in the sand and say I'm following Jesus. Twenty years later all of my family had become Christians. Ironically, I was at that point up to my eyes working with Umbro and on a slippery slope.
The lifestyle that I was beginning to lead meant I was no longer walking with God. It was a gradual thing. Umbro took up so much of my time. I was coaching, had three great kids and a great wife. Lesley has been a massive support. For periods when I was away she was faithful through all of that to the needs of the family and sometimes gave me the dig in the ribs I needed.
I was looking after a big brand and I didn't want to let people down. Between the ages of 35 and 40 my life was going in the wrong direction and I lost my ability to self-analyse. My work-life balance was gone. I started to look in the mirror and I was looking at the worst version of Philip Mitchell.
That brought me to my senses. I can remember Tom Cairns, the former Glentoran secretary, said to me around 2010, 'Mitch, these three wee boys, they are your responsibility'. And Phil Hills, then pastor at Dundonald Elim Church, got alongside and helped me. I am so grateful for these people and now I'm guarding my walk with God closely and holding onto Him tightly.
Q. Tell us about your family.
A. I've been married to Lesley for 24 years, the boys are Jamie (22), who lives in London, Jonah (20) and Lee (18). The boys are great and we are all equals, cheering each other on in life. They are my four best friends.
Q. How do you feel about the future?
A. I take it one day at a time. I'm very busy at times but not at the levels I was at with Umbro. I enjoy seeing ex-colleagues of mine doing well like Stephen Baxter, Jeff Spiers, Paul Leeman and David Jeffrey.
I really admire the managers who are doing it, who have families and sometimes other work commitments. These are exciting times for the Irish League and it's a game which has given me great memories, especially playing in European competitions.
Turning 50 was a big milestone last year and if I can live for another 50 years, I want to make the years count for what matters most.
Date of birth: June 3, 1968
Place of birth: Belfast
Previous clubs: Ards, Dunmurry Rec, Linfield, Ipswich Town, Portadown, Distillery, Glentoran, Glenavon