Interview: John Mitchell

Image: Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty

FA Cup Finals don’t come around too often if you’re a Fulham fan. Which is why a special place in our history will always be taken by the centre forward who scored the goal to take us there. John Mitchell made 194 appearances for the club, played in the FA Cup Final and scored 60 goals, most notably the winner against Birmingham in the semi-final of the FA Cup. Daniel Smith spoke to Mitch to get his take on that famous cup run, that famous goal, plus loads more from his career with the Whites. 

DB – Which football team did you support growing up?

JM – I grew up in a Spurs supporting family so, when I was young, I would go to White Hart Lane. I saw Jimmy Greaves make his debut for Spurs, scoring a hat-trick, which is something that has always stayed with me and inspired me to want to be a goal scorer.

Funny enough (and I’m not just saying this), Fulham was always my next club. The club I had a big soft spot for, just like it is a second team to most football supporters. So it was a great feeling when I was given the opportunity to sign for the club. I had an understanding of what Fulham was about and a bit of knowledge on past players etc and it felt like the perfect fit.

DB – Before Fulham, you also played for St. Albans. Was this your first opportunity in football?

JM – No, it wasn’t. I was actually playing for the county side first of all. We won the National Cup and a number of local clubs wanted to sign me. Originally, I signed for Hertford Town because I felt that I would do well at that level and get plenty of game time.

As it happened, it didn’t work out that way. I didn’t play in the first three games and then we played in the quarter-final of the East Anglia Cup and a few of our players didn’t show up due to a road crash a few miles away. So, the manager literally turned to me as his last option and asked: “son, what position do you play in?”. “I play upfront”, I replied. He didn’t believe me because he thought I was too small to be a centre forward, but he gave me a go anyway and we ended up winning 7-1 and I scored 4 goals. That was the start of my journey, I was in the team every week after that. I ended up as top goalscorer and stayed there for just over half a season before St. Albans came in for me. By that time I was ready, they were a top non-league club in amongst 7 or 8 of the more established non-league sides and I felt confident to make the step up. It was ideal because I lived in St. Albans and went on to score quite a few goals in a short space of time, and eventually, I got picked up by Fulham.

DB – How did the opportunity to sign for Fulham come about?

JM – We had a gentleman at the club who was a very close friend of Bill Dodgin Jr and he came to watch one of our matches. In those days we would get a crowd of about 1200 turn up to watch us play and you were never told who was there. So I wasn’t aware that any scouts were in the crowd but luckily I managed to score three in that game and four in the next.

All of a sudden, I was hearing rumours that I was about to sign for Fulham without knowing anything about it. But eventually, I went for a meeting with Bill Dodgin Jr to discuss the move; funny enough it took place at Wembley of all places. We couldn’t agree terms because I was earning more playing non-league football and having a job as an apprentice in the printing industry, which at the time was a top job then.

So it looked as if it wouldn’t happen; I was ready to leave and go home. Then Bill had a change of heart and told me to turn up at Fulham a couple of days later. When I arrived he said go down to the boot room, find a pair of boots that fit you and to meet him on the pitch. He brought one of the reserve keepers out and two apprentices to cross balls for me and just asked me to get on the end of them. So, that’s what I did. I must have scored a good 7 out of 10 and that was enough to convince him. Originally we were haggling over £5 per week which ended up paying for my petrol to Fulham every day. The club and the printing firm I was working for agreed to let me finish my apprenticeship. So then I was still doing one day a week working plus an evening at college until my apprenticeship was over. But the rest of the time it was football, football, football. I signed the same day and I guess the rest is in Fulham’s history.

DB – What were your first impressions of Fulham and were there any senior players who took you under their wing?

JM – It was exactly how I expected it to be. A great club. Everyone was very friendly, welcoming and from day one I felt like I belonged.

It was an ageing side and the club had faced a few challenging years, so I think a few of us youngsters coming through, came at the perfect time. We were hard-working, full of energy and it added a new dimension to the side. I think it was Alan Mullery who said “when Mitch came, we had to do something just to keep up with him”, which was nice.

As for mentors… NO! Haha. Nobody did anything like that. The lads were a brilliant bunch and they just accepted me straight away, which helped me to settle in very quickly but nobody took me under their wing as such. I was travelling in on my own from St. Albans every day and would try to squeeze in a few games of pool or a round of golf with the senior players once a week. The rest of the time I was with Les Strong who was the same age as me; we became good friends and still are. We made our debuts together and it was good times from then on.

DB – How did you find the transition from non-league football to being a full time professional in Division 2?

JM – I had come from non-league where you play twice a week and train one evening to still playing once or twice a week but training every day at Fulham. So it took a while for my body to get used to that. I was in the first team from an early age and after a dozen or so games I needed to be rested just to recharge the batteries. That was the only major difference for me personally and once I had built my fitness up to cope with the professional demand, I felt fine.

DB – Do you remember your first goal?

JM – If I remember correctly, it was Aston Villa at home, which was my third or fourth game. It was a great way to open my Fulham account because it was an overhead kick. The cross came too far behind me and Strongy knocked it back across and it sat up nicely for an overhead kick. I connected really well and just hoped to hear the roar of the crowd, which I did! I got up and saw the ball in the net which was the best feeling.

The match was scheduled to be shown on Match of the Day that evening and I remember my uncle, who was a massive football fan, used to come to a lot of the matches to watch me. He had a really good job and owned a colour TV, which was a real rarity in those days. So he invited us all around his house that evening to watch my first goal, which was special as the whole family was there. It was a relief to get off the mark so early into my Fulham career.

DB – What was Alex Stock like and how would you describe your relationship with him?

JM – Funny enough, when Fulham came in for me, Luton Town were the other team who showed a keen interest. But I felt it was too close to home and Fulham had always been my second team, so I decided to join them instead. So I politely turned down Alec Stock, who was the Luton manager, went on my holidays and came back for pre-season. When I showed up, guess who’s now the Fulham manager? Alec Stock!

At first, I was having kittens thinking this is going to be awkward but Alec was great. He came up to me and said, “so you don’t want to play for me then?”, I sheepishly responded, “yes I do, boss”. “Good, let’s just get on with it then.” After that, it was never mentioned again, which was a big relief at the time and good management on his part.

Relationship-wise, I think everyone in the team loved playing for him. He was not the best coach, that was left to other people like Terry Medwin, Bill Taylor and Johnny Collins. Alec worked that setup well. He knew he had some fantastic coaches and he didn’t interfere with that side of the game. But he was great at overseeing it all and telling us exactly what we were going to do.

DB – Can you talk us through your memories of the famous cup run?

JM – I was injured for a lot of the earlier rounds. I had a spell of about 7 weeks where I was having problems with my ankle and other than one or two of the replays against Hull and Nottingham Forest, I barely played a part in getting us to the semi-finals. I returned a few weeks before the semis and I remember playing against Norwich, who were flying high at the time. I scored a brace and had another disallowed to miss out on a hat-trick, but more importantly, I felt good. I’d had a good rest and I was going into the semi-final feeling very fresh.

I scored in the first game at Hillsborough, probably one of my best goals for Fulham and in an FA Cup semi-final. Then Birmingham came back and equalised, so we went to a replay at Maine road. It was a horrible day building up to the match. Raining, cold, the pitch was really muddy and it didn’t feel like a semi-final in the early exchanges, especially when compared to the first match, which was a really good game. This was all about grinding it out and by the time of the winning goal with 8 seconds to go, I think we were all resigned to the fact we would be doing it all over again, this time at Highbury. But thankfully, Alan Slough crossed it in and I remember thinking at the time if someone can knock this across goal, I’ve got a chance here. So I made the run and thankfully John Dowie was there to head it back across. I just beat the keeper to the ball, toe-poking it against him. It bounced back off me as I went flying over the top of him and as it trickled towards the goal, it all felt very slow motion in my mind. I thought the mud was going to prevent it from crossing the line but thankfully it did and Birmingham had no time to respond. Fulham were in the final! A feeling that words simply cannot describe, even 44 years on.

Sportsnight wanted Bobby Moore and myself to do post-match interviews. So, we had to get changed a bit quicker than the others who were still busy celebrating in the changing room. We waited upon one of the stands for the interviewer to show up. It was a bitterly cold night and what was just 15 minutes felt like hours. They had to wait for the other semi-final to finish first which had gone into extra time at Stamford Bridge between West Ham and Ipswich. It was absolutely freezing but we did the interview and from then on the focus was all on Wembley and the final.

DB – What was going through your mind when you scored the winning goal?

JM – It was an out of body moment. It’s very hard to put it into words but as I explained at the beginning, I knew a bit about the club and that they hadn’t won anything or been to Wembley before. So even at the time running away celebrating, I knew that I had just done something very special and to this day, I burst with pride knowing that my goal gave the best fans in the world a team in the FA Cup Final.

DB – What was it like to play in the final?

JM – It was a special feeling growing up watching the FA Cup Final every year and now I was there playing in it. It was quite surreal at the time but the reality is that we just weren’t good enough on the day. Which was a great shame because we didn’t play the way we had played all season, which leaves you wondering ‘what if?’. I remember feeling fine when I woke up but when we arrived at Wembley, I suddenly came over all fluey. I brushed it off and said to myself, if it is flu then it isn’t going to come out quick enough to affect me today. But when I got out there I didn’t feel as sharp. Perhaps it was the occasion, I’m not sure, but I certainly didn’t feel my usual self on the pitch.

There were also dramas on the morning of the game with the club going to court over an issue with what boots we were allowed to wear, which was a bit distracting. It’s a good trivia question – which team played in the FA Cup Final with no markings/brand logos on their boots? Of course, it would have to be Fulham!

What happened was, we were all given a pair of Stylo football boots at the beginning of the season. They stretched each time you wore them so everyone threw them away after 3 or 4 weeks and we forgot all about them. Then all of a sudden a few days before the final, a van turns up at the training ground with boxes of Stylo boots for us to wear at Wembley. The players weren’t aware of any deal and didn’t sign anything to agree to it but it apparently it was something agreed with the club when we were given the first pair at the start of the season. Anyway, to cut a long story short, the players refused because there is no way a professional footballer would risk wearing brand new boots without breaking them in for the biggest game of their lives!

So it went to court on the morning of the match. In the end, it was agreed that we would wear our preferred boots and paint over the logos so that no boot manufacturer was being advertised. That’s exactly what we did before kick-off. In the changing room covering the logos on our boots!

It’s funny looking back now but at the time it hit the players quite hard financially. When you play in the Cup Final, there is usually loads of endorsements and one of the biggest ones was from the boot manufacturer. But in order for us to play in the boots we were comfortable in, the players had to sacrifice this bonus money on offer as a compromise. It could only happen to Fulham couldn’t it!

But it didn’t take away from what was a very special occasion. It was great being around the Fulham area in the build-up and seeing everything covered in black and white. It felt like something special was happening and when it was over and all the decorations, flags etc were taken down and things went back to normality, you think to yourself, right let’s go and do it again but sadly it doesn’t quite work out that way. That’s why I was so chuffed to see Denis Odoi’s winning goal against Aston Villa last year and to be at Wembley to witness Fulham do it all over again with the right result this time. It had been a long time coming and it was thoroughly deserved.

Obviously ours didn’t end so well and as we sat in the bath after the game, everyone was very quiet. I kept on thinking about a chance I had, which went just past the post after deflecting off Mervin Day’s elbow. At the time I thought it was in but it wasn’t to be. It was one of the few times in my career where I woke up with the feeling that I was going to score today and I didn’t, sod’s law that it would be in the biggest game of my career. I felt sorry for Bobby Moore losing to West Ham, there had been such a thing made about it being Bobby vs his former club in the build-up and it was a pity to see him come out on the wrong end of it.

DB – Excluding the cup run, what was your favourite match?

JM – In terms of sheer enjoyment, I think I’d have to pick the Hereford game at the Cottage where we won 4-2. George Best and Rodney Marsh ran the show. It was a joy to play with both of them, we always knew it was going to be a short-term arrangement, but George especially was fantastic. Such a great guy who was determined to prove a point at Fulham. He trained hard and I think we saw him back to his ‘best’ in a Fulham shirt. It was a fun time to be a Fulham player.

Unfortunately, the club struggled results-wise as a result of having both Rodney and George in the same side because they would run around doing their own thing like the showman they were and it wasn’t really in the interests of the team. But from an entertainment point of view, 10/10, and playing alongside them both was amazing.

DB – Did the approach change when Bobby Campbell replaced Stock as manager?

JM – The style of management definitely changed. Bobby was more hands-on in training. I used to have one-on-one sessions with Bobby Moore, striker vs defender and Campbell changed that straight away. He made it clear that he didn’t like that, which was disappointing. He also liked playing me up front on my own as a lone striker, which was tough but I still managed to finish top scorer that season.

DB – What was your relationship like with Bobby Campbell?

JM – Good. I didn’t have a problem with him as a person, he didn’t give me the impression that he had a problem with me either. So nothing to write home about, it was a professional relationship, which is the way it should be.

DB – Who was the best player at Fulham and why?

JM – I loved playing with Ray Evans. He was a right back who was great crosser of a ball and at getting the ball forward to me as he always saw my runs. As a forward, I appreciated the service he provided. He was exceptional.

Bobby Moore was the greatest at the back that I’ve ever seen. The nicest, most considerate guy. A great leader, an exceptional defender and such a humbled individual. When I retired, I worked with Bobby. We were business partners for the last five years of his life and it was such an honour to know him personally. What a legend.

I’ve got to mention my mate Les Strong. It’s bizarre how someone can go from being a right winger to a left back! That’s such a strange move but he pulled it off and was Mr Consistent. I’ll throw George Best into the mix for obvious reasons as well. Those are the ones who stand out but Ray Evans would be top.

DB – Who were your closest friends at the club? Have you kept in touch with any of your old teammates?

JM – Well, obviously Les Strong. We are still good friends. After that, to be honest it was a good group of players, especially in the early days. We would go down to the local restaurant with a good half a dozen of the lads each time; everyone got on. But I suppose the core group that I hung around with was Strongy, Sharky (John Fraser) and John Lacy. The four of us broke into the side at the same time.

My whole time at Fulham was amazing. Going from non-league to Fulham, the cup run, George, Bobby and Rodney. It was just incredible times.

DB – Why did you leave Fulham when you did and how did Millwall compare to Fulham?

JM – Well, the club were struggling at the time and weren’t bringing in too many players. So they came to me and said, if you stay and score 20 goals this season it’ll keep us up and as a bonus, we will give you a free holiday on us. So that’s exactly what I did. I scored 4 in the penultimate game against Leyton Orient and that took me to 23 (I think).

But it turned out to be a holiday from hell! I was staying in one of Ernie Clay’s hotels and I had to pay for my own flight, it was all very basic and the place was swarming with refugees. It wasn’t an enjoyable experience, to be honest. I was left on my own out there with no hospitality and I just felt like I’d been used and sold a promise under false pretences. I called Bobby Campbell up while I was over there, was given little sympathy and it just put a dampener on everything. I told him I would stay one more year and honour my contract but in truth, I didn’t really want to be there in that final year, which was a shame.

Don’t get me wrong, I still gave it my all and there was no tension with anyone. It just wasn’t the same anymore. Sometimes new managers/owners come in and your face just doesn’t fit as well as it did before. After what we’d achieved together as a club, I would have loved for it to end in a much happier way but I moved to Millwall for £100,000, which was a lot of money in those days – not so much now though!

I got to say that Millwall was a great club to go to, the staff behind the scenes were great people but it was never the same. There was only one club close to my heart and that was Fulham. Especially our fans; they are such a unique group of supporters and it was a privilege to be part of the side who gave those fans a trip to Wembley to see their team in a cup final because they deserved it.

DB – What are you up to now?

JM – Well I’m semi-retired now but I still do business with a company in California, I’ve been doing that for about 6 years now. I also do some consultancy work for some developers in the UK.

DB – Finally John, pie or pasty, which filling?

JM – Pasties remind me of my youth so I think I’ll go for a pasty please.