Belfast Telegraph

Watch: Primary School pals to Irish League foes for Coleraine and Glenavon stars in top two clash

See Coleraine goalkeeper Chris Johns and Glenavon striker Andrew Mitchell in a Q&A before their friendship is shelved on Saturday at Mourneview Park

By Gareth Hanna and Ben Tucker

Glenavon striker Andrew Mitchell and Coleraine goalkeeper Chris Johns will be childhood friends turned sworn enemies come Saturday afternoon when their sides clash in an all-provincial top-two battle.

It's not often those coveted spots are occupied by two clubs outside the Big Smoke - not after mid-August at least. Now that their respective title chases are stealing the spotlight from the Blues and the Crues, excitement is building in Counties Armagh and Londonderry.

As Johns admits, a win at the weekend would be the 'biggest three points' of the season for the Bannsiders. But on his quest to secure those along with a seventh clean sheet of the campaign, he's going to have to hold out his old friend and former Primary School team-mate Mitchell.

The pair played side by side at Waringstown PS. As two of those weird left-footers, they formed quite the partnership.

"Chris was our flying left-back," explains Mitchell, now perched awkwardly on one of the children's seats in his own classrom. This year he returned to Waringstown as a Primary Six teacher. "He was supplying the balls into the box for me to score."

"When I came on - I didn't play much," interjects Chris. That explains the move to goalkeeper, then?

"Partly I didn't get on much at left-back but also, I got growing pains a lot when I was a kid," he says. "It was a natural regression - I didn't have to run as much in nets and it stuck."

WATCH: Waringstown lads Chris Johns and Andrew Mitchell are preparing to go head to head for Coleraine FC and Glenavon...

Posted by Belfast Telegraph Sport onĀ Thursday, November 2, 2017

Primary School substitute left-back to league-leading first choice goalkeeper - it's been quite a journey. And all via a full-time goalkeeping spell with Southampton.

"I'm not surprised because I know Chris always wanted to do the best for himself," praises Mitchell. "He's a winner. He had that natural ability, even at lunch time, he would go into nets and it was hard to get the ball past him."

For Mitchell, his natural position was always up top, but going by their recollection, his playing style is now at least a little more refined.

"It was kind of a one man team," recalls Chris. "You kicked it to Andrew and he ran round the pitch. I can't remember whether he was bigger than everybody else or faster...."

"I think I was just a bull," laughs Mitchell. "I was a bit chubby and I just ran through people. There wasn't much skill."

MitchellJohns1.jpg
Coleraine's Chris Johns and Glenavon's Andrew Mitchell were Primary School team-mates at Waringstown PS. Now they're going head to head in a Premiership top-two clash.

Should either end the season on top of the league, it won't be the first trophy they've lifted. Mitchell won the Mullen Cup during his Primary School days but the year he left, Johns went one better. An omen for their upcoming battle?

"I know Chris is going to say he won the Northern Ireland Cup when I left. Go on..." urges Mitchell.

"I didn't even know there was a Mullen Cup," retorts Johns. "We shared the Northern Ireland Cup actually. We went to extra-time and there were still no goals so it was shared. That was the highlight of my Primary School career."

It came against a team including the likes of Warrenpoint forward TJ Murray, from whom Johns pulled off a save David De Gea would be proud of - Mitchell's words.

MitchellJohns2.jpg
Chris Johns (second left) was a left-back and Andrew Mitchell (second right) in his familiar striking role during their Waringstown PS days.

Moving to modern-day and the pair have become the latest high level sports stars to come out of a village that boasts only a 4,500 population. Following hot on heels of a certain Gary Hamilton, a whole host of cricketers - Waringstown CC are 20 times NCU Senior League champions - and even hockey international Stephanie Quinn, how has such a small place become such a production line for sporting talent?

"It's a good question," mulls a thoughtful Johns. "I guess it only takes one person to reach a high level and then other people can aspire towards it. I don't know where that started but that must be the mentality around this town."

In his new teaching role, Mitchell is now the one to look up for the current crop of pupils. The Waringstown bar is again set high.

"I want to see a lot of the children going on to do what they want to do in their lives. It's up to me and the rest of the teachers to bring it out of them and show them they can be what they want to be. I dreamed of being Glenavon's number nine and it's come true for me," he says.

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Chris points himself out in an old Waringstown PS clipping. Close behind is a certain Gary Hamilton - another Waringstown native.

Mitchell is a talented cricketer too - one of those that can turn their hand to anything. During the Irish League off-season he can be seen donning the wicket-keeping gloves at the cricket club. Is he a hidden talent at the other end of the football pitch perhaps?

"I honestly think I could give it a good go in nets to be honest. I think I have the height but I would be bored going into nets," he smiles with a cheeky sideward glance toward his goalkeeping friend. "I couldn't stand still for that length of time. I'm happy enough scoring the goals."

He's been doing plenty of that this season - he's notched 10 Premiership goals already to top the charts. But what's his form like against his old team-mate?

"I just know that the last two times I've played against him I've scored. That's all that matters isn't it?" laughs Mitchell.

"He always seems to do OK against me which is a bit frustrating," mumbles Chris, less enthused. In fact the pair have met on four occasions, two wins for Mitchell, one for Johns.

"No, I'm only joking," continues the Glenavon forward - now keen to settle scores from earlier in the season. "You beat us 4-2 at the Showgrounds and it was a poor game on our part but hopefully on Saturday it can be turned round and it will be 4-2 to us."

Another of those infectious smiles is flashed Chris' direction.

"I want to be greedy and say 3-0 to us but it will be much tighter than that," says Johns, the more-understated of the two. "A goal or two max. I can see it going right to the end. It could go either way."

And Mitchell agrees - standard procedue duly observed before such a mammoth clash.

Whatever way it goes at Mourneview Park on Saturday, Waringstown Primary School will see two of its former pupils going head to head in arguably the biggest game of the Premiership season so far. It's been a long journey from the top pitch at lunch-time.

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