“It’s been like a whirlwind,” says Tyrick Mitchell. The Crystal Palace defender is reflecting on life under Patrick Vieira a few days after he was part of the side that defeated the champions, Manchester City, on their home patch, although the 22-year-old could easily be talking about his own career.
As a youngster Mitchell had trials with Watford but struggled with attendance because his absent father was in and out of prison, leaving his mother to survive on benefits. His dream of becoming a professional looked doomed when Brentford closed their academy in May 2016 – two months after he had signed his first contract. Now firmly established as Palace’s first-choice left-back, he has started every Premier League match since Vieira succeeded Roy Hodgson in the summer and insists he never lost faith in his ability.
“I always had a plan that somehow I’ve got to … I had tunnel vision,” he says. “There was nothing going to stop me. Sometimes you detour and don’t focus as much but I always make sure that no one is going to influence me or put me on the wrong track to not succeed. It hasn’t been the easiest of routes but that’s what makes everything more special and humbling to me. It came from nothing and it wasn’t easy – I think that is a big part of the person I am today. I try to stay humble and cherish every moment.”
Mitchell grew up with his mother and sister in Harrow, north-west London, and has had only sporadic contact with his father.
“It was difficult and for a lot of people around me in the area it was probably the same,” he says. “The single-parent aspect was massive for me. I feel like it made me a better person. I didn’t take anything for granted. It gave me that pride where now I am in a position where I can help the people around me, and no one has to worry about anything.
“That whole scenario built me into a man so much quicker. Sometimes when you have two parents, or when you are given everything you want, you are kind of shielded from the real world. Now when I enter the real world, and you don’t get everything you want or you have to work even harder, I am able to do that with ease.”
Mitchell was first spotted playing for local club Pinner Albion, and Watford were keen on offering him a place at their academy but had concerns about his commitment after he missed several training sessions. He credits the influence of his mentor, Abdi Farah, who took the young defender under his wing when he joined AFC Wembley, and the coaches at Brentford’s academy for making him realise how much dedication would be required.
“They helped me getting to training and staying focused on my dream. They played a massive role in getting me to where I am today. Obviously as a young person you love playing football but when you’re younger the whole professional aspect is hard to grasp. Like being punctual and things like that. It’s not like just going outside and kicking a ball with your friends.
“Sometimes I felt like I sacrificed the professional side to just be a kid and stay out late with my friends. I didn’t really understand what football could be at that time. But the rest of the coaches told me: ‘You have a real chance here – don’t throw it away …’ It’s not always about having fun – sometimes you have to be professional and they helped me understand that.”
Yet Brentford’s controversial decision to close their academy to focus on their “B” side playing top opposition in friendlies left Mitchell and many others out in the cold.
“I felt that was all I knew growing up,” he says. “It was like a family, so when it closed, suddenly I was just a school pupil and not someone who was at an academy. That was one of the hardest parts but I never try to get ahead of myself. A lot of people like my friends helped me to move on and recognise that there was going to be another opportunity and to make sure I was ready to take it.”
When that came in the form of an offer from Palace, Mitchell did not hesitate, despite interest from other clubs. Two days after Alan Pardew’s side had lost the 2016 FA Cup final against Manchester United, he met Palace’s academy director, Gary Issott, at the hotel where the squad had held their post-match party.
“From the first meeting with Gary, there was a plan,” says Mitchell. “It was like: ‘We have these people in front of you; this person might go and this person will stay.’ I prefer someone to tell me how it is – tell me that I’ve got to get past this player. I feel like I’m a good judge of character and sometimes when people speak you feel their energy and believe what they are saying. That was the kind of vibe that I got with Gary and here we are today.”
It is a measure of the esteem Mitchell is held in at Palace that the experienced Patrick van Aanholt was allowed to depart in the summer and no left-back was brought in by Vieira. After becoming Palace’s youngest Premier League goalscorer for 23 years at the end of last season against Aston Villa, he has continued that form with an assist in the draw against Newcastle and is top of the Premier League’s successful tackles chart.
“Patrick was a great left-back and when he was here I learned a lot off him,” he says. “But the confidence the club and manager have put in me has made me want to repay them and show that they were right.”
Mitchell has yet to take the opportunity to pick his manager’s brains about one of his heroes, however. Ashley Cole played at left-back for Palace on loan before going on to be part of the Arsenal “Invincibles” side captained by Vieira.
“I haven’t really asked about Ashley Cole,” Mitchell says. “I class Ashley Cole as a Chelsea player, so I don’t really remember his Arsenal time. But that’s a good point, I am going to do that!”
A picture of Mitchell was proudly included alongside other youth-team products such as Gareth Southgate, Wilfried Zaha and Aaron Wan-Bissaka as part of a mural outside Palace’s new academy that was officially opened last week by the England manager. The next stage of development at the £20m state-of-the-art facility in one of the country’s talent hotspots is about to begin and their latest homegrown star is expecting plenty more to follow in his footsteps as a result.
“I think there is going to be a massive production of players coming through,” he says. “There is nothing you can’t get at Palace that you will get at another club. It’s crazy. I won’t be surprised if the whole of the south play for Palace.”