Those who were there remember it as quite an innocuous challenge. MK Dons were leading narrowly at Meadow Lane just after the half-hour mark and repelling a Notts County attack when Paul Mitchell, hacking the loose ball up-field, collided with an opponent and ended up in a heap, flailing around on the turf in agony. The lower part of his left leg hung limply, his ankle dislocated. His foot was dangling at an unnatural angle.
“There was nothing sinister about the tackle — just a coming-together — but it was the way Mitch landed,” recalls Aaron Wilbraham, a striker who featured for clubs across all four English divisions over a 23-year professional career and was a team-mate of midfielder Mitchell that Saturday in February 2007.
“I remember going with him to his appointment to see the orthopaedic specialist a few days later and he produced this x-ray. All the bones — the ankle, where it met the shinbones — were shattered. There were cracks everywhere.
“The consultant described it as the type of injury someone suffers when they’ve been in a serious car crash.”
Mitchell was 25. He had recently returned early from a loan spell at fellow League Two side Wrexham, where he had hoped to gain more game-time after slipping down the pecking order at his parent club, but was still considered one of the leaders in manager Martin Allen’s squad as they sought to rise from the fourth tier.
The utility player signed in December 2004, initially on loan from Wigan Athletic, had captained the team in the past, setting standards with his industry and endeavour rather than natural ability.
The specialist talking him through the scans suggested it was unlikely he would ever play again given the severity of the fractures to his tibia, fibula and ankle. His team-mates, knowing the man, were not so sure.
Over a painful rehabilitation which dragged through the next 18 months, Mitchell strived to prove the doctors wrong. “I’ve never seen anyone work so hard,” says Wilbraham. “We’d all arrive at the training ground and he’d be in the gym, putting himself through the wringer to try and build up the strength in his leg again. He had that desire and commitment… No, it was probably more like sheer bloody-mindedness.
“He ended up missing the whole of the following season, then played one more game for the club and a few on loan at Barnet (all early in 2008-09). Even managing that was a huge achievement. To be back on a pitch was a minor miracle and all down to his stubborn refusal to believe it was over.
“But no matter how many specialists he went to see, he still ran with a bit of a limp. He tried to get himself through games, putting a proper shift in like he had in the past, but in the end he just couldn’t do it any more. It was too bad an injury.
“I reckon every success he’s achieved in the game since stems from that disappointment of having his playing days cut short. He was so intent on making an impression on football that, when one career was snatched away from him, he bloody well made sure he excelled in a different way.
“That’s just him all over. His work ethic demanded it.
“Whatever the odds, he was going to make the most of his career.”
It says everything about Mitchell’s drive that, despite his playing career having been so unremarkable and then had even that end prematurely, he now has the world at his feet.
His name crops up whenever talk turns to how Manchester United move on from a decade of dismal recruitment — his presence in the stands at Old Trafford taking in an FA Youth Cup tie alongside Ralf Rangnick, the man who hired him at Red Bull, held up as apparent proof that this is the man to revamp the club’s tired scouting system.
As The Athletic reported last week, Mitchell’s talents have been noted by at least two of the consortiums aspiring to purchase Chelsea, acutely aware as they are of the possibility that Marina Granovskaia, the club’s de facto director of football over the last few years, could depart when Roman Abramovich does.
Indeed, the role Mitchell played in securing talents as jaw-dropping as Sadio Mane and Dele Alli, Christopher Nkunku and Vanderson, as well as restructuring and revitalising recruitment departments around the globe, has ensured he is mentioned in dispatches whenever a Premier League club decide there might be something in this self-sustainability lark after all.
The Mancunian counts Southampton, Tottenham Hotspur and teams across the Red Bull stable on his curriculum vitae. He is overseeing Monaco’s resurgence in Ligue 1, with Belgian club Cercle Bruges, like Monaco owned by the Russian Dmitry Rybolovlev, similarly occupying his time.
It has not all been plain sailing in the south of France. There was a period only six weeks ago when Mitchell — together with the English entourage he had hired to rejuvenate Monegasque fortunes — appeared under threat as last summer’s signings floundered and results faltered badly. Yet, in the period since Monaco were eliminated from the Europa League’s last 16 by Braga of Portugal, they have won five top-flight games in a row and can go third in the table today (Saturday) by extending that sequence away to Saint-Etienne.
Within the game, his reputation still precedes him. Mitchell is considered an innovator. A workaholic. An organiser. As he has publicly acknowledged, recruitment is not an exact science and there is no sporting director out there who can claim to be infallible or to have entirely mastered such a volatile and competitive market. Rather, it is about risk management and, in that context, the most eye-catching of his signings still set him apart.
Now 40, a figure who hardly registered as a player outside Wigan and Milton Keynes has transformed himself into one of English football’s most successful exports.
At some point, a club are going to try to lure him home.
The frustrated footballer in Mitchell clearly helped shape the sporting director he has become.
“His upbringing had been tough and then his playing career ends up being cut short by injury,” says David Webb, who worked with Mitchell as a scout at Southampton and, with the job titles taking on a life of their own, as head of elite potential identification at Tottenham. “So, once he had decided this was the area he wanted to go into, I got the sense what drove him was this desire not just to be part of the game.
“Rather, he wanted to make a dent in the game. To be the best at what he does.”
Mitchell was born in Stalybridge, on the eastern outskirts of Manchester, the youngest of five children, and stumbled into football. Spotted having a kickabout on the sidelines, he was invited to train as a nine-year-old with one of his brother’s under-11s teams and ended up eclipsing his older sibling in the session.
He spent time in Manchester City’s junior set-up and signed a two-year scholarship at Wigan straight from school at 16. Those who charted his progress recall him being a fine boxer too, but it was his character that stood out. His was a loud Mancunian voice in a Wigan youth team that was predominantly Scouse.
He began as a centre-back before his athleticism earned him a role in defensive midfield. His first bow in the senior set-up, at 18, in an EFL Trophy tie against Burnley was overshadowed by a fellow debutant, Andrew Morris, scoring a golden-goal winner in extra time.
Bruce Rioch handed him a league debut on his 19th birthday, away to Wrexham, introducing the youngster for future Belgium manager Roberto Martinez midway through the second half. The teenage substitute, a ball of nervous energy, lasted five minutes before lunging wildly into Carlos Edwards. Referee Alan Kaye sent him off without hesitation.
Perhaps those were omens for his playing days, although things did improve.
He was a vocal and popular member of the group, a feverishly competitive trainer and an energetic presence whenever called upon in a team built to tackle and crammed with strong characters. There were 27 league appearances, just over half off the bench, for Paul Jewell’s side as they rattled up 100 points to claim promotion from the third tier in 2002-03.
Yet Jimmy Bullard, signed for £275,000 midseason from Peterborough United, represented an upgrade and, in truth, Mitchell’s opportunities were limited thereafter.
He still learned from time spent in the company of Martinez and Michael O’Neill, team-mates at what was then the JJB Stadium and two future international-level managers who, Mitchell said, “already saw football differently”, before departing on a free transfer in the summer of 2005 for MK Dons, with whom he had enjoyed a loan spell for the second half of the previous season.
Allen, his new boss in Milton Keynes, was being complimentary when he described Mitchell as a “a steady up-and-downer”. The player realised his limitations, and his willingness to soak up knowledge from those around him stood him in good stead. He once joked that a lack of natural ability invariably left him “surveying things from the bench — the perfect place to watch what the best players are doing”.
When he was not pushing himself through rehabilitation after that horrific 2007 injury, he was pestering Allen’s successors as manager Paul Ince — for whom he never played — and Roberto Di Matteo for advice and pointers. Those conversations broadened his horizons.
Chairman Pete Winkelman had extended Mitchell’s contract while he worked to regain fitness. When it became clear the then 27-year-old would be unable to return as a player, Winkelman encouraged him to work in different roles at the club, experiencing football from a new perspective as he determined what to do with his life next.
He spent time with the marketing, commercial and communication teams, secured his coaching badges and helped John Gorman coaching the reserves or in the academy. There was a role, too, as the club’s community ambassador, which included gearing up for Milton Keynes’ involvement, as a host city, in England’s doomed bid to stage the 2018 World Cup finals.
He saw first-hand how all aspects of a young club had to work in tandem, on and off the field, to thrive. When Winkelman was left perplexed as to why a side who had spent relatively heavily had slumped into mid-table in League One in 2010, he asked Mitchell to investigate why the recruitment had gone so badly wrong.
“We called him ‘Mr MK’ back then, because he seemed to be involved in everything,” says Wilbraham, now assistant manager to Steve Cotterill at Shrewsbury Town in that same third tier. “He was across all departments at the club. Everywhere you went, you’d find Mitch playing a role. But that’s just the way he liked it, keeping him busy.
“You could tell it was the recruitment side which really appealed to him. They eventually gave him a title (head of recruitment and scouting), probably thinking he’d go off and have a look at the odd player here and there. But he was never going to just put up with that. Rather than treating it as an old-school scout’s job, he used his time to build up a proper network, leaning more on data and analysis, and gave us an edge in League One.
“By doing that, probably without realising it, he also made a name for himself. He was always going places.”
At MK Dons, alongside newly appointed manager Karl Robinson and the performance analyst Stuart Metcalf — who has since worked with him at Spurs and Cercle Bruges — Mitchell had a blank canvas to explore data models and recruitment on a logical top-down basis. His success in helping Robinson construct a vibrant young team, as well as the progress he instigated through the extensive scouting operation, was noted. Southampton, whom he joined as director of recruitment and scouting in the Championship in January 2012, represented a step up.
In the years that followed, he worked with Nigel Adkins, Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman as Southampton established themselves in the Premier League. He organised the infrastructure and put the scouts in place so that, when Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Luke Shaw and the manager, Pochettino, all departed on the back of an eighth-place finish in 2014, the scenario was less doomsday and more of an opportunity to secure the next wave.
Mitchell oversaw the arrivals of Dusan Tadic, Toby Alderweireld, Ryan Bertrand, Shane Long, Graziano Pelle and, perhaps most startlingly of all, Mane (for £10 million from Red Bull Salzburg) as replacements. Koeman’s team went on to come seventh in 2015.
Following Pochettino to Spurs in November 2014 he secured Dele, whose candidacy was pushed by the club’s former manager David Pleat, for £5 million from MK Dons and also brought in Alderweireld, Kieran Trippier, Son Heung-min and Victor Wanyama, all of whom proved integral to the team which challenged for the title in 2016 and 2017. Their quality easily counter-balanced those signings — the likes of Clinton Njie, Vincent Janssen and Georges-Kevin Nkoudou — who struggled to make the grade.
“We check everything we can,” Mitchell once explained. “Recruiting is like buying a house — it’s a long-term financial commitment. Before buying a house, you check as much as you can. We do the same. We compile files on targets, we compare them, then use our data and reports to inform a decision. You try and be as meticulous as you possibly can.” Even so, occasionally, one or two will still slip through the net.
It is hard to circumnavigate the non-disclosure agreements when assessing how it all ended at Spurs, though frustration clearly surfaced with the chairman, Daniel Levy.
Mitchell tendered his resignation in August 2016 and endured a lengthy period in the wilderness on gardening leave, for all that his relationship with Pochettino remains strong. He spurned enquiries from various top-flight clubs to join RB Leipzig in early 2018, attracted by the German club’s strategy of investing in youth and potential, and a desire to prove that — now and again — English talent does travel. Life does not have to revolve around the Premier League.
Leipzig, another young club, who prided themselves on only signing players under the age of 24, boasted the youngest squad in the Bundesliga at the time and were convinced their approach would eat into the gap to Bayern Munich at the top. Mitchell started there but ended up as technical director of Red Bull’s Global Soccer division, based at the company’s offices in central London, with his wide remit covering their stable of teams in the US, Brazil, Austria and Germany.
“It’s quite sexy for clubs to go for young players with re-sale value these days, particularly in the current financial climate, but he’d always kept to that model,” says Webb, formerly technical director at Swedish club Ostersund and most recently head of football operations with Huddersfield Town. “That’s where Mitch found his niche. He was doing that back at Southampton a decade ago. It didn’t have to be about just having bottomless pockets and spend, spend, spend.
“At Southampton and Spurs, it wasn’t only about recruiting from outside either, but also creating those lines of communication within the club that ensured internal academy players could progress. The onus was on us to bring through talents through our own system. Harry Winks, Josh Onomah, Oliver Skipp… they all came through that internalised process.
“It’s a productive way of working, but it leans a lot on creating that environment in which they can thrive.”
Red Bull provided that platform with opportunities granted by the Englishman abroad to Ademola Lookman — a player Tottenham had once tracked — Patrik Schick, Nordi Mukiele, Dani Olmo, Hannes Wolf and Nkunku. Emile Smith Rowe played his first senior league football with Leipzig, on loan from Arsenal in 2019. Plenty of the staff recruited by Mitchell are still working within the company’s portfolio of clubs, even if processes may have been tweaked since he left.
Yet, as fulfilling as that role was, it perhaps spread him too thin.
The pandemic and lockdown gave him time to take stock and consider other options. Monaco came calling in that summer of 2020, hoping Mitchell could reinvigorate a club weary of a cycle of boom and bust.
Eventually, it proved too tempting a chance to turn down.
So, what sets Mitchell apart?
There have been plenty of examples of innovative thinking, from Southampton’s ‘Black Box’ at their Staplewood training complex — a bespoke database of data and video clips — to the sleep pods he had introduced for the first team at Monaco’s new €55 million performance centre to aid recovery. But, given a budget, most sporting directors might explore such technologies.
In his case, it is pragmatism and clarity of thought that seems to drive policy. He conducted a 90-day review of Monaco’s structures upon his appointment and decided a complete rebuild was effectively required.
“He’s very good at getting clarity early: what is the project? What is it we’re looking to achieve? What is the club’s vision and philosophy?, their DNA if you like. And then he knits it all together,” says Webb. “Recruitment is one of his strongest areas, his main background, and he’s very modern in his approach and forward-thinking. Data-informed, not data-led.
“But he also has this skill of aligning a club’s various departments and getting the best people in the right positions to support the process. Who is the best first-team recruiter out there for this type of model? The best analyst? The best sports conditioning coach? The best academy director? He tries to fuse them all together so they are working to the same overriding philosophy, but he wants them to show off their own personalities within that structure.
“He’s very good with his staff, very demanding of his team in terms of what he wants from them, and the standards he expects are exceptionally high. But he’s very fair with how he treats people, very loyal and trustworthy, very honest and straight-talking. He’s people-driven: if you’re working hard for the cause, he’ll back you.”
That loyalty has seen an entourage shadow Mitchell’s moves. Webb and Metcalf would follow him to Spurs in late 2014. He worked with Laurence Stewart, previously at Manchester City and Everton, at Red Bull and Stewart accompanied him to Monaco, initially as head of recruitment and development, now as technical director. The pair seem to come as a package these days and have been joined at Stade Louis II by compatriots James Bunce, a colleague at Southampton and the US Soccer Federation’s head of performance for three years from 2017, and tactical analyst turned head of football methodology Aaron Briggs, another Manchester City old boy.
Mitchell has suggested he must be a “nightmare” to work with, though his acolytes know what makes him tick. They are used to the insane hours he puts in, and the demands he places on them.
Wilbraham and his family visited Mitchell at his plush apartment in Monaco in the summer of 2020… and barely saw their host over the course of their stay. “He was out the door before we got up, then wouldn’t get in again until late evening,” says the former striker. “A complete workaholic. Obsessed. But you accept it because that’s how he has achieved what he has in football: through incessant hard work.”
“He’s definitely an all-in type of guy,” says Webb. “When he’s in a project, he gives it his heart and soul. He wants to know he’s helped the club to progress, to ensure he leaves them in a better place than where they started, and he is convinced he can always out-work his competitors, people in the same position as him. He wants to have the knowledge (on players) to hand, so that he’s never caught out. Never falls behind. So he expects his staff to leave no stone uncovered.
“He wants to be driving the market, not reacting to it. ‘We’re starting a trend, not following one’.”
Those who know him suggest he can be “abrasive”. Or, perhaps put slightly kinder, “blunt” in the way he talks. He might suggest he is merely “frank”.
“If I have a problem or if I have something to say, good or bad, I say it,” Mitchell admitted, when quizzed by the local media upon his arrival in Monaco. “I ask a lot from my colleagues because I consider us lucky to be working in football. I will never downplay how lucky I’ve been to work at the clubs I have, but to be successful you have to work as hard as possible every day and surround yourself with smart, competent people. That is what I have always done.”
Members of staff are very much made aware if standards ever slip, even if he is not one to hold grudges.
He fights his club’s corner in a viciously competitive market and there is a ruthless side to his approach. He was hired by Monaco and given free rein to remodel a bloated squad that had under-achieved alarmingly since claiming the Ligue 1 title in 2017, finishing ninth in the pandemic-curtailed 2019-20 season.
His first act was to sack the head coach, former Spain manager Robert Moreno. His second was to take a sledgehammer to the playing staff. By the time his first transfer window closed, the number of players on professional contracts at the club had been reduced from 77 to 39, of whom 10 were from the academy.
It was a massive overhaul for a figure who tends to consider a turnover of four to seven players each year to be healthy. The players recruited that summer — whether Caio Henrique or Kevin Volland — flourished under the management of Niko Kovac. Monaco finished third a year ago at the end of Mitchell’s debut campaign.
“We look for scouting profiles to suit the type of style we want to play,” he told The Athletic at the end of his first year at the club. “And then we look to recruit into that style.
“The profiles have to have certain characteristics, we build a KPI (key performance indicators) map for every position relevant to our style. An arm of that is data analysis; looking across different leagues utilising data and different metrics to highlight players that could be interesting to us, actually utilising performance data across all leagues to look at players that perform to the outputs we think necessary to play at the highest level.”
The source of this season’s frustration has been a more underwhelming summer transfer window. Newcomers Alexander Nubel, Myron Boadu, Jean Lucas and Ismail Jakobs have laboured at times.
There was a point in mid-March, as defeat at Strasbourg was followed by that Europa League elimination to leave the team with one win in eight matches in all competitions, when scrutiny switched from new head coach Philippe Clement to the men who had appointed him in January.
On March 20, the day champions-elect Paris Saint-Germain and Pochettino visited the principality, reports circulated that Rybolovlev was considering the futures of Clement, chief executive Oleg Petrov and Mitchell as short- and long-term objectives appeared to become blurred. There were suggestions of communication issues between the English contingent and the French speakers on the books, albeit at a club where Russian and English have become the principal languages of late.
The players responded by walloping the league leaders 3-0, kicking off a winning run that now extends to five games. While Petrov could yet still depart, it is understood Rybolovlev invited Mitchell to a meeting on April 3 – the day Monaco won 2-1 at Metz in the only game the Englishman has missed since arriving from Red Bull – and reassured him that his commitment to the long-term project remains.
Mitchell and his staff still have two years to run on their contract. Prising them away would be costly. But he continues to attract covetous glances from home.
That ability to structure clubs efficiently, creating an environment in which staff and players can thrive, and unearthing young, dynamic talent to be developed will always ensure he has suitors.
“And to have suffered that serious injury and then flipped it on its head and made a success of himself in a completely different aspect of the game…” adds Wilbraham. “Well, that’s just a great story.”
(Design: Sam Richardson for The Athletic)
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Paul Mitchell: Innovator, workaholic, organiser – one of the most wanted signings in football
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