After starting his career at Premier League side Brighton and Hove Albion, Mitch Walker had a difficult time breaking into the first team going on loan spells with Eastbourne Borough and Welling United.
Shortly after, Walker moved to National League side Dover Athletic where he enjoyed a successful seven years at the Kent club, before denying several offers in the summer of 2019 to join Aldershot Town. Walker talks through his journey, the move to The Shots and some interesting hobbies too.
Let’s go back to the beginning, where did football start for you?
“I’d say it was in my back garden. My Dad and Grandad were both goalkeepers and they played at County level.
“I think when I was about 3 or 4, my Dad bought me a Samba goal to go in the back garden. We played about in there and I used to go in goal whilst he pelted shots at me.
“That’s where the journey all started for me, to be honest with you.”
You started your career at Brighton & Hove Albion, what did you learn from your time there and was your Dad pivotal in your progress down in Sussex?
“Yeah definitely! I was there from the age of 12-20 so I did a four-year schoolboy scheme there, a one-year scholarship and then a three-year pro.
“I was there for a long time and my Dad and Nan were both massively pivotal in that because it was quite a far way away from where we lived over in Sussex, so it was a case of twice a week up to the age of 16, getting me to training sort of straight after work with my Dad.
“My Nan also helped which was an absolute godsend and then on a Saturday or a Sunday, they used to drive me around so without their help, I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today.
“I was fortunate enough to have that support because I think a few people don’t have that sort of support network around them so I’m certainly fortunate there.”
Talk to me about the scholarship schemes when you were with Brighton, how does it work?
“Usually, it’s the case of when you finish GCSEs and If you’ve been awarded a scholarship through hard work and a little bit of luck then you go into a scholarship with a professional club and it’s normally a two-year program.
“They like to mix in a bit of education at college and being a full-time footballer, you go in and get your first real taste of what it would be like to be a professional footballer if you want to progress.
“You’re certainly not there when you sign up for a scholarship in the sense of making it as a professional. You’re far from it as there is still quite a lot of people who get scholarships but then when it comes to the real thing at the end of the scholarship, you either get released or get a pro contract.
“That is the way the scholarships worked. It was like a preparation for when you start your career as a professional footballer so that is usually how the scholarship programs worked.
“I know now that there are no longer jobs like there used to be when I did my scholarships. There are no longer jobs or limitations. All of that sort of stuff is now gone.”
During your time at Brighton, you had spells at Eastbourne Borough and Welling United. How different were those spells to life at Brighton?
“Yeah, it was massively different! I went on loan to Eastbourne twice. I went there for one game when I was 16 and their goalkeeper at the time, I think it was Danny Knowles who either got sent off at the weekend or picked up an injury.
“I went on loan for that game Danny missed out on whilst he was recovering. I was 16 in goal and it was a big step-up compared to football when I was at school.
“My second loan at Welling when I was about 18 or 19, I played in the Conference South for seven or eight games.
“I then played 12 or 14 games for Eastbourne whilst I was at my final year with Brighton and I enjoyed my time out on-loan. It’s completely different from what you get in the reserve team.
“It didn’t matter that the grounds in the National League South weren’t as nice as the grounds when I played at Brighton. There is certainly a lot more atmosphere in the non-league games and a lot more character in those games than there was in the academy system.
“This is when I certainly got the buzz for playing in non-league levels. It’s just so much better when fans are coming week in week out to see you play compared to barely any fans at academy level.”
Was there anyone at Brighton that football fans would recognise in today’s game?
“I was very lucky to have played with a great team in my first scholarship year. The captain then was Bournemouth’s Steve Cook in the first year and he was a year older than me so it was his second year.
“Also in my year with Cook when I came up the ranks with Brighton was Lewis Dunk who is an ever-present figure at Brighton and is the Seagulls captain.
“So, there are a few boys from when I was younger that are now in the first-team at their respective clubs. There is also Elliott Bennett who plays for Blackburn Rovers and Tommy Elphick who is down at Huddersfield Town.
“There was a lot of good boys and we had a relatively young team. I am very pleased that all of them are still doing well now.”
Did you ever think that you would go down the National League route or did you think you’d follow a similar route to Dunk, Cook etc?
“I got awarded my professional contract early and since then I was with the first team at the end of that season when I was 18.
“I believe I’m still one of the youngest goalkeepers to have started a league game for Brighton and I genuinely believed that I would be playing League One football and maybe even the Championship one day.
“I then began to realise that there is just so much competition when you want to play at those levels. It’s really difficult to keep up with that level and unfortunately, Brighton didn’t work out that well and that’s when I started to think about the more realistic route of the National League.
“At the end of my last year at Brighton, I went on loan at Leyton Orient and I didn’t accept the permanent deal with them as I would’ve been number two to the first-team goalkeeper who I believe to have been Jamie Jones.
“That’s when I decided that I need more minutes and I knew that the National League route could provide that for me.”
Going down the National League route wasn’t so bad for you as you spent seven years at Dover. What was your favourite memory down at The Crabble Stadium?
“There are a lot of good memories that I had down at Dover. It was a very successful seven years for myself and the club to reach the highest point that the club has ever reached with the promotion from the National League South.
“We started to finish consistently in the top eight and we even got into the play-offs. I had a very good time down there and last year was a little tricky when the manager got sacked who had been very successful down there.
“It was a big change and we went from going part-time to full-time so the structure of the whole club changed.
“The year we got promoted was definitely my favourite year there. It was one of the highlights because, in my first year, we got so close in the play-off final when we lost to Salisbury and it was very nice to find ourselves on the winning side not so long after.”
After Dover, you moved to Aldershot Town in the summer of 2019. How did the move first come about?
“In the summer, there were a few offers and Aldershot Town were at the forefront of my mind as soon as I heard that they were interested in me.
“I spoke with Blackers (David Blackmore) when I was on holiday and also with the gaffer (Danny Searle). They told me about everything they were doing in regards to the new season and they both really had a strong feeling that Aldershot Town would remain in the National League which was one of the key criteria for me.
“It felt like a perfect match for me and from times that I played against Aldershot, I really felt the atmosphere from their home fans as an opponent and I always loved playing there. That was a massive influence on my decision to go there.”
In your first season, you’ve flourished at Aldershot Town. There are National League and Aldershot Town fans that are lauding you as one of the best goalkeepers in the league, what is your opinion on that?
“Obviously, people are entitled to their own opinions but all I am focused on is trying to perform the best I can whenever I step out onto the pitch for Aldershot Town.
“Personally, I can’t have too much of an opinion on what fans think of me because I can’t let the positive feedback get to my head and boost my ego. It is important as a professional footballer that you don’t t let that happen and just focus on your game.
“I can feel flattered by the comments but I try not to look too much into them before my games on a Saturday or Tuesday night.”
Are there any hobbies outside of playing football that fans won’t know you do?
“On my day off, I like to work at a school called Summer Hill and I’ve been a member of staff down there for about four years. At Dover, I used to work at the school three times a week but now that I’m less available I’ve had to bring it down to once a week on a Wednesday.
“I’m a Specialised Gains teacher there and we go through football, rugby and cricket seasons. It’s all good fun and I love being down there. I also run a goalkeeping academy in Kent.
“Outside of football, I also love fishing which can be seen as my main escape from Aldershot when I’m not there. If I’m not coaching or playing football, then you’ll always find me fishing and it doesn’t matter if I don’t catch a fish. As long as I have a fishing rod in my hand, I’m happy.”