CONOR’S OFF TO THE THEATRE OF DREAMS

Conor Mitchell, Northern Ireland goalkeeper
Conor Mitchell, Northern Ireland goalkeeper

CHRISTMAS may be looming, but for Conor Mitchell there is a more pressing engagement on the horizon.

For the Portrush teenager is preparing to play at Old Trafford after his Burnley side were paired with Manchester United in the third round of the FA Youth Cup, much to his delight.

“On one hand we could have had an easier draw and had more of a chance to progress but on a personal level I would prefer to compete with the big teams and pit yourself up against some of the best players in the country as I feel the experience will make you a better player for the future,” the former Dominican College student told Times Sport last week.

“We played them in a pre season friendly in August at Gawthorpe and drew 1-1 so to a degree we know what to expect from them, their style of play, their key players. But stopping them is easier said than done, however that result gives us the confidence that we can match them as a unit and the belief that we can get a result.

“We’ll need a big team effort if we’re to get the result, but we’re quietly confident in our own ability as individuals and as a unit and I think their role as favourites can only benefit us as it takes some of the pressure off us as underdogs

“Their record in the competition is immense. I think they hold the record for the most FA Youth Cup wins, so they obviously deserve a lot of respect and we’re under no illusions that we’ve got a real game on our hands.

“The principles and style of play of the first team is implemented right down the youth ranks at United. I’m sure Sir Alex Ferguson will attend the game too so it will be a great occasion.

“As a little boy you dream of playing in the biggest stadiums in the world and they don’t come much bigger than Old Trafford. Some of the greatest players in history have graced that pitch, so not only will it be a great experience but it can be a little taster for the future, like a view of what the rewards in football are if you work hard and belief in your own ability.

“It’s such a contrast, this time last year I was playing for Portrush against the likes of Garvagh and Kilrea in front of one man and his dog and now I could be playing in one of the most historic grounds in the world, it’s quite scary.”

And Conor will have an extra incentive to send United crashing out of the competition - he is a die-hard Liverpool fan!

“My first love as a kid was Liverpool Football Club and it always will be, so growing up I learned more and more about the unique rivalry between Liverpool and Man United and I have to admit I developed a bit of a hatred of Man United, some might call it jealousy,” he joked.

“And even though I’m a Burnley player now and I won’t be representing Liverpool Football Club at Old Trafford on the night, that loathe of United will definitely spur me on to do well and there’s nothing I would love more than to be on the winning side against a Man United team at Old Trafford, it’s the stuff dreams are made of.”

It has been a remarkable few months for Conor, who made the move to Lancashire in the summer and he is loving every minute of it.

“I really can’t believe I’ve been over here for nearly five months because the time really has flew in and I think that’s testament to how much I’ve been enjoying it at Burnley. I’m loving it,” said Conor.

“Don’t get me wrong it’s not all a bed of roses, they are tough times but I do believe I’ve come to a great football club, surrounded by great people.

“In my opinion it’s a family club, I’ve felt at home since day one and not one member of staff would walk past without acknowledging you and that may seem like a little thing, but it’s those little things and the welcoming environment which attracted me to the club in the first place and I couldn’t be happier with my decision to come to this club and this town, where the people are so passionate about football and Burnley Football Club in particular.

“Without sounding smug, it really is the best job in the world. Coming in every morning to get paid to do what you love really is immense and it’s been a dream of mine since I first kicked a football, so I’m incredibly grateful to have been given the opportunity to pursue my dream and I know how lucky I am, as I’m sure there are plenty of people who would sacrifice a lot to have been given the chance.

“So that thought drives me on to work hard every day and never get too comfortable. Football is obviously a physical sport and your career could end in an instance through injury so the thought that every day could be my last game of football motivates me to work myself to my maximum and makes me realise how lucky I am to be in this position.

“Moving away from all my family and friends at the age of 16 was tough. A few years back I could never have saw myself in that situation, but it’s definitely a decision I don’t regret making, sacrifices are part and parcel of football and I think I have coped pretty well so far from being away from my family and my own comforts.

“I will admit there are days when maybe you haven’t trained well or you’ve made a mistake in a match and all you want to do is go home, or you hear a song or look at a picture that reminds you of home and the doubts start to creep in, but then I think about how lucky I am, living my dream and how hard I worked to be in this position and it’s definitely all worth it.

“Since I’ve moved away, it’s made me realise how much family means to me and I’m just going to keep working hard and try and make them proud.”

Conor has also been impressing on the International stage with Northern Ireland helping them qualify for the elite stages of the Under-17 European Championships.

“I was away with the Northern Ireland under-17 squad at the start of October in Estonia for European Championship Qualifiers and we performed really well, beating Wales, drawing with the hosts Estonia and being narrowly beaten by England, and it was enough to secure qualification to the elite round in second place,” he said.

“International football is definitely a different environment to club football and it’s good to get the mix and I think it can only make you a better player. Also meeting up with the boys again and hearing a familiar accent, it helps overcome any homesickness you might have, I love representing my country and I feel proud every time I pull on a Northern Ireland shirt. Playing against teams like England and in particular competing against players like Jerome Sinclair (Liverpools youngest ever player) was a great experience.

“The draw for the elite round of qualification is done next month and will be played in March so I’m hoping for a good group and we can hopefully progress to the finals in Slovakia in May.

“Before that though I just plan to work hard with Burnley and seeing where it gets me. Hopefully I’ll come away from my first season having made a good impression on people at the club and hopefully having improved as a goalkeeper. Sean Dyche has come in as the new first team boss recently and hopefully he can put the club back where they belong, in the top flight of football, and his past record of giving young players a chance at his previous clubs like Watford provides us with real encouragement and motivation to do well and make ourselves known to the gaffer. “Making the step to first team level is a hard one and it won’t come without hard work and a good attitude but it’s where we want to end up eventually so games like the United one in the Youth Cup are the perfect platform for us to showcase our individual ability to the manager and hopefully force our way in to his plans.”

STORY: Steven Crawford