Ahead of the 2007 season, the phone call David Mitchell didn’t want came. After 13 seasons with Westmeath, he was deemed surplus to requirements.
ust a few weeks later he took the phone call he didn’t expect. Longford, the county of his father, offered him the chance to keep operating at the highest level.
Mitchell’s time in maroon coincided with the county’s most progressive period. In that time, they grew familiar with big days and milestone wins. But when he was drafted in as an 18-year-old by Mattie Kerrigan in 1994, Westmeath football barely had a pulse.
“Jack Cooney, the current Westmeath manager, would tell you back then they had to go into the back of churches to get fellas out to fulfil national league fixtures,” says Mitchell.
“Mattie Kerrigan came on board then and he was instrumental in changing the fortunes of Westmeath football, he brought an element of professionalism. I think he kickstarted Westmeath football as we currently know it.”
Over the next dozen seasons or so, Westmeath and Mitchell sashayed their way through the game’s pecking order. Along the way the likes of Barney Rock and Brendan Lowry made their contributions as managers.
One evening at training, Lowry’s prodigious young son Shane brought a session to a halt.
“We were training in Shandonagh and Shane had gotten his hands on a set of irons belonging to one of the lads. He was in the small square at one of the goals, chipping away, taking little bits of sod with him as he went. There was no astroturf in the squares then and the groundsman was busy trying to keep the penalty box from turning to dust. And when he saw what Shane was doing, he let this roar, ‘get out the f**k out of there!’”
“The whole session was stopped to see what was going on. He’d chipped a perfect line all the way across the goal. The groundsman was hopping,” recalls Mitchell.
Kerrigan’s four seasons saw them move from Division 4 to Division 2. They enjoyed a rare day out in Croke Park when they reached a league semi-final at a time when every team in the country played for just one title.
By Kerrigan’s final year in charge in 1995, would-be senior manager Luke Dempsey was busy guiding the county to their first All-Ireland minor title. Previously unmapped, Westmeath were on their way.
And as Westmeath grew and changed, so too did Mitchell. His first championship appearance for the county came in goals but he played his best football at full-back.
Lowry used him at midfield while he also operated at centre-forward when required under Páidí Ó Sé. By the time he was done, Mitchell played championship football for Westmeath in every line bar the full-forward line.
The county’s zenith came under the Kerry man, when they claimed their first and only Leinster senior championship title in 2004. The seeds for that success were sown in a training camp in far away Sunderland.
“We trained hard the first day over there. Then again the next day. We actually even had a session with Mick McCarthy. We were in the Stadium of Light then and Páidí let us off out for the night. ‘Enjoy it lads, have a good evening now. But I’ll see you in the pool at eight in the morning’.” is how Mitchell remembers it,
Ó Sé was in the pool at the allotted time but others were late or had to be hunted from the bed.
“When everyone was there, he let us have it. ‘Is it any f***ing wonder you are where you are?’ Looking back on it, he’d set us up to fail. He knew exactly what he was doing. And after that everything changed. He had us exactly where we wanted us.”
Tomás Ó Flatharta took charge after Ó Sé and Mitchell was let go as the 2007 season came into view. By that stage Dempsey was in charge of Longford and the pair knew each other well from their time spent with Westmeath.
In fact, Mitchell had played his best football under Dempsey, earning an All-Star nomination in 2001 for their run to the All-Ireland quarter-final after a summer spent tracking the likes of Mayo’s Ciarán McDonald and Meath’s Graham Geraghty.
Dempsey decided it was worth the phone call and Mitchell felt like he’d more in the tank.
The transfer was smooth. He had family connections with Longford and had been christened in Carrickedmond, which meant he could switch counties without leaving his home club of St Mary’s, Rochfortbridge.
However, the draw for the following summer’s Leinster SFC hadn’t been made when Mitchell made the switch. And as fate would have it, Longford were paired against Westmeath.
His reaction to the draw? “Oh f**k. Look I had great friends on both sides and had no animosity with Tomás Ó Flatharta at the time who was training Westmeath. Páidí had left.
“For me it was a game of football, once the whistle blows all relationships went out the window. But coming up to that draw was something I didn’t want to happen for obvious reasons.”
There was another twist on the way. Mitchell was settling into life with Longford when fate intervened. He went on a skiing trip and damaged his knee. He missed the Leinster game, which Longford won. And he was still out when they played each other in the backdoor later than same summer when Westmeath got their revenge.
He returned to duty for 2008 but another bad injury spelled the end.
“Karma maybe coming back at me for making the move,” he says, smiling at the memories.
“I was unfortunate (with the knee injury) and I kind of packed it up the following year. I played against Kildare in the O’Byrne Cup and got a bad shoulder injury and that was it.”
These days he busies himself with the affairs of a variety of underage teams in Rochfortbridge including the ladies team who he helped to a Westmeath SFC title. He also had a spell as selector when Pat Flanagan was in charge of Westmeath.
This weekend, he’ll take himself into Cusack Park in Mullingar. Longford won the league clash between the sides earlier this year. Mitchell is hoping that will focus minds.
“Not that (Westmeath) would ever take them for granted but they might be a little bit more focused than potentially if they had of beaten them in the national league.”