The John Mitchell Story

By Jason Grant Shela MBE

Every young boy dreams of one day playing professional football, scoring memorable goals and playing at Wembley in the Cup Final. However, for one exceptional man, that dream became reality.

John Mitchell was born on 12 March1952 and grew up in St. Albans. He attended St. Peter’s & Beaumont School and was trained by his father Alex who was a first-class amateur player. From a young age, John had a natural aptitude for scoring goals and every year was top scorer for his school and club teams.

John’s England youth cap

He represented Hertfordshire County and scored in the final of the 1970 FA County Youth Challenge Cup where his team defeated Cheshire 2-1 whilst also claiming an England youth cap

John, a Spurs fan (he was at White Hart Lane when Jimmy Greaves hit a hat-trick on his Spurs debut against Blackpool) was signed by Hertford Town and would find himself making his debut in unusual circumstances. There was a road accident, and a number of first-teamers were delayed from getting to the game on time. The manager looked round the dressing room and seemed to keep ignoring young John, who sat there bewildered. Finally realising he needed John to make up the starting eleven he asked him where he played, to which John replied ‘up front’ and reluctantly the manager put him in for his senior debut. And what a debut it was as John scored four goals on the day the start of many more he would get in that first season

The following season saw John take a step up, signing for local club St. Albans City , who at that time were a top semi-professional club. He again quickly made an impression tallying 25 goals in 47 games and soon scouts from professional clubs were looking at him. Both Luton and Fulham came in with offers, Luton manager Alec Stock was very keen to sign him but John told him he decided that Fulham was the best place for him and then-Fulham manager Bill Dodgin agreed a fee of £250 plus a further £500 after he had made six appearances with John receiving a salary of £27 per week for the player in 1972.

By the time John turned up for his first training session Stock had replaced Bill Dodgin as manager at Fulham. He greeted John by saying ‘You’re the player who doesn’t want to play for me,’ but all in jest and in his first seven games for the reserves, John scored six goals earning him a  first team debut at home to Hull City. In his third game against a very strong Aston Villa side, John scored his first goal with an incredible overhead kick which was captured by the Match Of The Day cameras at Craven Cottage.

John looks on as Pele fires in a free kick for Santos

John was also in the Fulham team that played a prestige friendly again Brazilian champions Santos with Pele in 1973, one of the most memorable games he recalls, with Fulham coming out on top 2-1.

Alex Stock and first team coach Bill Taylor strengthened the squad and added a wealth of experience, bringing in World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore, and Alan Mullery who had rejoined the club from Spurs. John formed a great partnership with Viv Busby and by the start of the 1974/75 season, Fulham were a very competent side in a competitive second division.

John nets for the Cottagers

This was the season they embarked upon their historic FA Cup run. In the third round it took three matches to defeat Hull City. In the fourth round they faced Nottingham Forest under the new leadership of Brian Clough. It took four games to decide this match up, with Busby scoring two goals in the third replay. Round Five pitted Fulham away to Everton, who were top the first division. Busby again showed his class scoring an opportunist first against the run of play, then coolly slotting the ball past Dai Davies for the winner. Stock described this victory as Fulham’s finest hour.

Fulham were drawn away in the sixth round at then-first division Carlisle United. Les Barrett scored the only goal of the game to take Fulham into the semi-final against Birmingham City. Unfortunately, John had to watch these matches from the stands as a very bad ankle injury had kept him out of the side since before Christmas. However, he was fit again for the midweek match against top of the table Norwich City at Carrow Road and scored two goals and narrowly missing his hat trick when what looked a perfectly good goal was disallowed.

Such a terrific come-back performance meant Alex Stock picked John for the semi-final the following Saturday at Hillsborough against Birmingham City. With a packed house of 55,000 fans the atmosphere was electric and the two teams battled out a goalless first half. The Blues had Howard Kendall, Kenny Burns, Gordon Taylor and Trevor Francis in their ranks, but Fulham came out full of confidence in the second half.

Mitchell strikes against Birmingham….

…and celebrates

After five minutes, Bobby Moore found Mullery on the right flank who struck a perfect pass to Alan Slough. He in turn found Mitchell who, in stride, flicked the ball up before unleashing a blistering volley into the top of the net from the edge of the box to the delight of the Fulham fans behind the Leppings Lane End. Slough should have made it 2-0 but a miraculous save by Latchford saved Birmingham. The Blues pushed everything forward and Gallagher equalised with a well taken goal under pressure. The match ended 1-1 which meant another replay for Fulham at Maine Road, Manchester.

The following Wednesday in very heavy and wet conditions on a muddy pitch, both sides played a very cautious game and it was 0-0 at the end of 90 minutes. Extra time proved no different until with only seconds left on the clock, Slough drove a hopeful long ball into the box, John Dowie headed towards the goal and Mitchell managed to get on the end of it with an outstretched foot, the ball came back off the keeper, hit John in the chest and rolled slowly over the goal line. He had scored one of the strangest goals of his career to take Fulham into their first FA Cup Final against fellow Londoners West Ham United.

Celebration time in the bath

Hopes were high for the Cottagers who had beaten West Ham 2-1 on their way to the 4th Round of the League Cup earlier in the season.

Lining up with his teammates to meet the Duke of Kent at Wembley

The ‘Cockney’ Final took place on May 3rd 1975 and 100,000 fans packed the old Wembley Stadium to cheer on their heroes. Fulham had the better of the first half hour but the opening period ended without score. Early in the second-half, Mitchell had a good shot saved by Day.

John chases West Ham’s Graham Paddon

It was West Ham who finally made the breakthrough on the hour, when Pat Holland’s trickery on the left found Billy Jennings who saw his shot blocked by Peter Mellor with  Alan Taylor was on hand to score. Four minutes later Holland passed to Graham Paddon who smashed in a low shot which Mellor couldn’t hold and once again Taylor scored from two yards out. Fulham could not recover and West Ham deservedly went up the 39 steps with Captain Billy Bonds collecting the cup from the Duke of Kent.

Fulham finished ninth in the second division that season and their mammoth 12 games in the FA Cup run is a record that will never be matched. For the 1976 season, John Mitchell and his team-mates learned that Fulham had signed superstars George Best and Rodney Marsh. Alongside these two greats of the game, John proved an invaluable forward cohort and Fulham played an exciting brand of creative attacking football, which saw them playing in front of a packed Craven Cottage every other week.

The Big Match cameras were there to record the high point of this great era in the 4-1 defeat of Hereford, when Best and Marsh scored assisted by Mitchell’s outstanding support play. Fulham reached the final of the Anglo-Scottish Cup that season but lost to Middlesbrough and the star pair only stayed one season before departing for America.

John to the right of manager George Petchey in the Millwall line-up

John continued to shine upfront for the West Londoners under new manager Bobby Campbell, but when Millwall offered Fulham a club-record fee of £90,000 for him it was impossible to resist. In his six years at Craven Cottage, John scored 57 goals in 170 matches, a great return for any striker. At The Den he started off just as well and found the net 18 times before a serious injury brought his career to a premature end in 1979 at the age of just 29.

Since hanging up his boots, John has enjoyed a highly successful career in sports media & marketing. He then served as Managing Director of Panini, the Football Sticker Company and was responsible for an incredible charity match at St. Albans City’s Clarence Park ground where a packed house of nearly 6,500 saw a match between a Spurs & Arsenal Select Side play a World XI including George Best, Bobby Moore, Franz Beckenbauer, Ossie Ardiles and a host of other great players. The match raised nearly £40,000 and over 30 terminally ill children enjoyed an amazing holiday at Disney World in Florida.

In 1983, John’s home-town club St. Albans City called on him to manage the team after a disastrous spell of five defeats in their first six games left them bottom of the Isthmian League Second Division. Calling on his wealth of football knowledge, he was able to turn the team around and they went on to gain promotion that season.

St Albans City 1985-86

The following (1985-86) season they finished 6th in the Division One and a year later took that title. In three and half years, John made his mark on the team before leaving in 1987 due to increased work commitments. He returned in 1991, this time buying the club and staying for two years, during which time he guided the careers of such players as Dean Austin, who went on to play for Southend United & Tottenham Hotspur.

John had also set up a sports marketing company with Bobby Moore and they were responsible for introducing the Football Play-Offs which radically changed English football. They also then created the World Series of 50-over cricket in India along with managing the British Americas Cup Challenge in San Diego. Today, John still avidly follows the Premier League and his beloved Spurs and Fulham, and he is also actively involved in a Stadium Development business.

John Mitchell is truly a man for all seasons and has excelled in all aspects of his life, both on and off the field.