(Picture: Mark Fletcher)
By Matt Badcock
MITCH BRUNDLE remembers the moment he realised he was in Non-League football.
“The first time I walked into the Braintree dressing room,” he says. “You had to bring your own kit, wash your own gear – it was a very big wake-up call.
“You’re playing with lads who have been working all day and it hits you. But you adjust to it very quickly because everyone is there to enjoy their football which is want you want to do.”
It’s exactly what Brundle was looking for. Instead of living in an U23 bubble at Bristol City, he decided he had to experience the hard knocks.
Three years on, the 22-year-old has lots of football under his belt. He had two seasons with the Iron, a year at Gateshead before moving to Dover Athletic this summer.
“It came from when I went on loan to Cheltenham in League Two,” he says. “I had a real hunger to play more. I wasn’t getting promised any game time at Bristol – Alan Devonshire at Braintree did promise me that. I’d spoken to a lot of other professionals as well and they said there’s nothing more important than playing games.
“You see that now when players are released after playing U23s. A lot find it hard to get clubs – even in the National League because they haven’t played enough games.
“Managers want experience and want to know they can trust you. I think it’s going to…well, I know it’s going to work out for the best the way I’ve done it. There’s a lot of people who have done it this way and got success through it. You have to keep working hard.
“There’s a lot of players at academies who think, ‘Yeah, I’ve got it now’. When they come down, three points are on the line, a gaffer working two jobs, you’re working two jobs, it hits home and gives you a bit of reality it’s not always roses.”
Brundle says playing for three points, and the pressures that come with it shouldn’t be underestimated.
“When you’re a development team, yeah it’s a win, but there’s nothing else really there for you,” he says. “You still get the same pay. Whereas at our level, a loss can lose you your place in the team or your job.
“Managers’ jobs are on the line. There’s pressure on them. They’ve got two jobs and are trying to balance it all. They’ve got small budgets, they have to dig around, get things through favours. Even the ones with big budgets might be trying to sign players but they can’t get them into this league. Everyone’s got their own problems.
“Just look at the Torquay manager [Kevin Nicholson] getting fired only two weeks into the season. Now he’s got to find another job. It just shows the reality that when you do play on a Saturday you’re playing for your lives just to keep things going the way they are.
“That’s where you can see that the three points mean something. When managers lose games it’s not just, ‘Oh right, we’ll watch the video on Monday and we’ll assess it to get better’. It’s not a development process. Your job could be on the line. That’s when you feel like you’re playing with the real boys.”
Brundle also says it’s about learning the lesser thought about aspects of football. What’s it like to be bullied by an opponent? How do you react to going in the referee’s notebook?
“It was a shock to the system when I first came to the National League,” Brundle says. “I think any player, even in the U23s now, should try to get out on loan.
“But it’s easier said than done. A lot go from playing tippy-tappy to somewhere on a Tuesday night when there are hailstones and people are putting elbows in your face, getting stick from the crowd – it makes your skin thicker. I’d advise any player to get any game time in men’s football.
“Play against a big striker if you’re a centre-half, even get your first red card! That’s what I was told. ‘You haven’t got enough experience. You haven’t had a red card or even a yellow card. You don’t know how to deal with getting a yellow card in the first minute and how you’re going to judge your game after that. Or get a red card and how you deal with the downs that come with it’.
“Now I’ve been booked in the first minute and learnt how to deal with the next 89 minutes of people running at you and keeping disciplined when people are trying to get you sent off. When you’re playing academy football, that doesn’t really happen. If there’s a bad tackle everyone’s patting each other, ‘Oh, you’re alright, you’re alright’.
“When you play at our level, if someone gives you a bad tackle they look down at you and walk off.”
Brundle is right to point out that the National League waits for no man. Keep up with the competition or forget it.
Despite a number of summer departures and a lot of new arrivals, Chris Kinnear’s Dover have started well. In their three seasons since promotion from the Conference South, the Whites have pushed for the play-offs and finished inside them once.
And the skipper is convinced that mentality and expectation from the coaching staff is absorbed by the players.
“When you see a team that’s been up there for the last three years it puts confidence into the team,” Brundle says.
“The players know they can trust what the gaffer and staff are saying. We’ve started well but it’s still early on. We have to keeping working even harder.”