As a teenager at Arsenal, Mitch Pinnock was once compared to Gunners midfield great Liam Brady – by the man himself.
But until recently he was accustomed to the realities of a working life outside football. Last year, Mitch was still combining playing for Dover Athletic in the National League with dry-lining and plastering, close to where he was brought up in Dartford.
For those supporters that missed it in the programme for the West Ham game, the full interview with Mitch is published in full below.
Though this season has been testing with The Dons struggling in League One, thinking back to his days of combining football with another job certainly puts life into perspective for Mitch, particularly when Wally is working the squad hard on the training pitch!
“Training at Dover was three nights a week, so I had a job during the daytime," said Mitch. "I was doing dry-lining and plastering. Basically, I’d go into a house, and if there were no internal walls I’d build the walls and put the ceilings in. I did that for three years. The other day, when we were running around outside in training, everyone else was moaning but I was thinking, ‘I could be at work now doing something I don’t like!’ It does make you appreciate it a lot more.
“I stay in touch with the lads I used to work with. If we’re off on a Wednesday I go and have breakfast with them, and around ten of them came to watch me when we played against Charlton.”
After he was released by Arsenal at the age of 15, Mitch joined Southend United, but he made only two appearances for the Shrimpers, who were then in League Two. A four-year spell in non-league followed, with stints at East Thurrock United, Bromley, Concord Rangers, Tonbridge Angels, Maidstone United and Kingstonian. Despite showing plenty of promise, it was only after he’d settled at Dover that Mitch started to attract attention, with League scouts regularly flocking to watch him at The Crabble.
“I only made two first-team appearances at Southend. Paul Sturrock was the manager, and I was training with the first team, but then Phil Brown came in. He seemed to like me at the start, but when he came back in pre-season he didn’t seem happy with me. I left and went to Bromley. I think it was just one of those situations, and maybe I wasn’t the type of player he wanted at the time.
“I’ve always been the same really: I kept trying every day in training to earn myself a chance, but it just wasn’t happening for me, so I felt it was best to try and make it elsewhere. The standard at non-league level is actually very good – I was aware of that from watching Dartford years ago. When you’re playing at that level, you’re really trying to get back into the League, though. When I had to drop down to non-league I had to keep going and show people what I could do. I had to look upon it as an opportunity.
“When I first went to Dover I didn’t get much game time, but last season was the only time I’d played more than ten games at senior level. That was my first season of playing every week and featuring in 40 to 50 games. When I knew I was playing in every game, I thought I could do enough to get spotted.
“I hadn’t played much the season before, so I said to the manager, Chris Kinnear, that I was at that age when I needed to play regularly. He said he would play me. He didn’t for the first five games, but then he put me in and I played every game for the rest of the season. I did have a point to prove. I didn’t want the manager putting me in and then taking me out again! It was about me getting a run of games to show people what I could do.”
After his signing for Wimbledon was announced, a picture appeared on social media of Mitch in Wimbledon kit. Though his memories are hazy, as it was when he was only seven years, he does remember hitting the back of the net for the Dons.
“I can recall playing for Wimbledon in one match on trial, and I think we won 7–0. I remember scoring a penalty, but not much else! Straight after I signed here, my mum sent me a photo of me in Wimbledon kit from back then. She still had it at home, and she said it was a bit spooky! It was probably the first proper team I played for, other than in Sunday League. It was the first trial I went to, so it’s a bit weird when I look back on it all now.
“I first played for a Sunday League team called Fleetdown. Every game I played in we won, until we lost to a team called Glebe, so I went and signed for them. They were like a feeder team for Millwall. I played a few games for Millwall, but then Arsenal came in for me. I had six offers to join clubs at the time. Wimbledon was one, and the others included Chelsea, West Ham and Millwall. I was only seven at the time. I chose Arsenal, and I was there until I was 15.
“I used to play up front when I was younger, until about the age of 11. Then I played left-back at Arsenal, but I hated playing back there as I just wanted to be scoring! But it was my time at Arsenal that made me the player I am today. Training was based on technique, and passing the ball and stuff. It definitely helped me in my career. Steve Leonard was my last coach – he was very good. Liam Brady took a few games as well. I’d seen the old video clips of him playing. He was manager when we played against Reading, and I scored from outside the box, into the top corner. Afterwards, he said it had reminded him of himself back in the day!”
Mitch struck 11 goals last season for Dover, and his performances had clubs queuing up for his signature. However, it was Wimbledon that appealed to him the most, and the Dons agreed to pay a fee to the National League club, which was decided only quite recently, at a tribunal.
“I was aware of a bit of interest in me last season, but I didn’t know whether it was serious or not. Most of the teams in the National League wanted me, but I wanted to step up from that level. I knew I had to concentrate on my football. I had another League One club interested in me, but when I heard that Wimbledon were in for me, it just seemed right. It was closer to home and the club’s history of coming up through the leagues appealed to me – it’s crazy how far AFC Wimbledon has progressed.”
Though Mitch has scored vital goals this season, he is far from happy with his return.
“Obviously, I want to try and help us get out of the relegation zone. On a personal note, I feel I should have scored more goals this season. I got 11 goals last season, and I was aiming for 10 this season. “
If Mitch can reach that target, it will certainly give Wimbledon a better chance of staying in League One for another season.