WHEN he was younger Billy Mitchell had a season ticket in the Barry Kitchener stand – now the “dream” has become “reality” and the next step is the one that will take him onto the Den pitch for his home debut.
Mitchell, 18, has been ticking some impressive boxes this year: a first professional contract offer in March; his first-team debut with his mate George Alexander in May, and his full debut this week against Oxford in the EFL Cup.
Mitchell, who grew up in Orpington and whose dad’s family are from Bermondsey, first went to The Den when he was eight. He played in the Sunday League with Thamesmead and joined the Lions after trials with Tottenham – against whom he scored in the FA Youth Cup last season – Brentford and Gillingham, among others. His first-team debut was just a month after his 18th birthday.
It’s been rapid progress considering the first team he played in with his boyhood club was the under-15s.
Neil Harris promised a path to the first team for young players when he took over, and Millwall finished the game on Tuesday with two Lions fans in midfield: Mitchell and Ben Thompson.
It seems only a matter of time before supporters get to see another one of their own playing at The Den.
“I would really relish playing in front of 15,000 home fans,” Mitchell (above, left) said after the Lions’ penalty-shootout defeat to Oxford. “Hopefully that’s something that will come soon. I have season tickets through Millwall, [and] I did as well when I was younger, in the Barry Kitchener upper.
“I spoke to [Southwark News] about this previously, to end up playing for your boyhood club is any kid’s dream. It’s a reality now so long may it continue.”
Mitchell plays and speaks with maturity, and will know a couple of first-team appearances don’t guarantee anything.
“That’s a great taster and I’ll be doing everything I can in training and under-23 games to impress the gaffer and his staff and hopefully make the first team,” Mitchell said.
The midfielder has the right role models around him to help his game.
“I played alongside one of them [Tuesday] in Shaun Williams,” Mitchell added. “I’ve watched him a lot. All of them, to be fair, I think it would be unfair to name just one, they’ve all been instrumental in helping me.
“They’re fantastic. You always wonder as a young player coming in if it’s going to be a hostile environment, but every single first-teamer has been brilliant in helping me settle down, so I’m grateful for that.”
Mitchell first knew he was starting at The Kassam stadium when the team did shape work the day before.
The youngster started on the right side of a midfield three, with Aiden O’Brien behind a front two of Jon Dadi Bodvarsson and Tom Elliott.
Mitchell said: “I’ve played a diamond quite a lot in the youth team so I had a good idea what the gaffer wanted from me. But playing in the first team is a very different environment to playing in the youth team.
“It’s a lot quicker, you have to be sharper with your decisions and it’s going to help me improve in the long run.
“It’s a tough position to play, when they’re switching the ball constantly there’s a lot of work and running, but that’s something you’ve just got to do for the team. I’m gutted with how we finished but overall very pleased with the performance.
“The gaffer was pleased with how we played but at the same time he had strong words to say with how we finished the game. He told us we needed to close games out, 2-0 is not a secure score-line and when we have as many chances as we had we have to be clinical to make sure we finish out the game.
“For the most part I’m very pleased with how it went, I’m very grateful to the gaffer and his staff for giving me the opportunity to play in a great cup game like that. I think for the large majority of it we were the better team, scored two great goals, but unfortunately playing good football doesn’t win you games and that’s a learning curve for me making sure we close out those games.
“Undeniably there are a few nerves before kicking off but once you get on that pitch it’s the same as playing any other football game. I just concentrated on settling myself down with a few simple passes to try to get myself into the game.”
Mitchell signed a one-year professional deal in the summer and the added disappointment for him is that the defeat to Oxford takes away one route to more senior action.
But that’s unlikely to halt the progress of a player who has shown such talent, aggression and intelligence in his two first-team appearances so far.
“Obviously I’m gutted because it would have been a great opportunity to play some more games, but that’s just the way it goes. I’m just going to have to play as well as I can to earn the right to get on the bench in league games. I’ll see what I can do with the under-23s as well.
“You’ve got to impress as much as you can and hopefully at the end of this year Millwall feel that I’ve earned another contract.”
Image: Millwall FC