Stranraer have battled back from looking like relegation favourites earlier in the season to a side that could have an early finish to their season by surviving in the Second Division.
The installation of Stephen Aitken as Manager has helped the Blues move above Albion Rovers and East Fife and they presently have a two point advantage over the Methil men with a game in hand.
Another reason for the Stair Park side’s upward movement has been the form of highly rated goalkeeper David Mitchell who could certainly be described as an old head on young shoulders.
Mitchell said: “It has been a strange season for Stranraer. We started off not knowing what was happening in terms of the league we would be playing in and appointed a new manager as well along the way. It really has been an up and down affair but a great experience.”
Experience is something that Mitchell is not short of as he explained: “I turned 23 on Thursday and I have been fortunate to have had this season and other seasons to play in. I have played in a lot of games, I am not sure how many it is, but usually keepers are just breaking in at 23 and I have been a first team regular.”
Mitchell is closing in on 150 games for the Blues since arriving in the summer of 2009 and he said: “I was only 19 when I came here from Ayr to play first team football. I had been with Ayr for a season after playing for Ayr Boys Club and coming through their Pro-Youth set-up.”
“Stephen Grindlay was the first team goalkeeper at the time and I learnt a lot from him and I worked hard under the coaching of John White and Fraser Stewart.”
The bonds built as Mitchell learnt his trade have remained as he explained: “I still keep in touch with Fraser, and join him for training at his junior side Kilwinning Rangers during the week as well as the work I do with Stranraer.”
“His brother Colin came in and played three games for us recently as a trialist before joining Cowdenbeath.”
The reason that the experienced Stewart had been brought in was due to a suspension that Mitchell was serving.
“I had been sent off against Queen of the South,” said Mitchell before adding, “And that was my second red card of the season and the fourth of my career. They have all been for last man challenges but some of them have been harsh decisions.”
The perils of trying to stop a striker in a one on one situation were quickly evidenced by Mitchell who said: “I came to Stranraer on loan aged 19 to get experience and I certainly got that in my first couple of games. We played Berwick in a Challenge Cup tie at Stair Park and won 4-2 and then the following Saturday we were up at Dundee in a CIS Cup tie.”
“They had just brought in Gary Harkins and Leigh Griffiths and other top name players and we lost 5-0. To make matters worse I got sent off a few minutes from the end.”
Mitchell explained his loan move saying: “I have gone to Stranraer as I wanted to be playing. I had been at Ayr for a year and not played and that was frustrating. I had been on the bench and to be honest I was not that sure that the manager Brian Reid would ever have played me.”
“Keith Knox took me to Stair Park and I started getting games in Division Three. This is now my fourth season as I agreed to move here permanently and of course after three seasons we were promoted to Division Two over the summer.”
Stranraer were promoted in unconventional circumstances as Mitchell explained: “We finished third last season and that got us into the Play-Offs against Queen’s Park who had finished second. They had beaten us four times out of four in the League but we did really well in the first leg of the Semi-Final and won 3-1.”
Two early goals in the second meeting at Hampden killed the tie off and Mitchell said: “We played really well in both of those games in fact we played the best we had played all season. The two early goals at their place killed the game and we controlled things thereafter.”
Mitchell added: “It was great to keep a clean sheet at Hampden and that game was probably the game of football I have enjoyed most in my career as were 5-1 up on aggregate and were not going to lose that.”
The Play-off Final against Albion Rovers started off well again for Stranraer with a 2-0 win at home, however the first half of the second leg was to kill Mitchell and his team’s dreams of promotion.
The shot-stopper explained: “The first leg was another strong performance but the first half at Cliftonhill was disappointing. We finished 3-1 down but recovered in the second half and bossed the game but Derek Gaston in their goal was brilliant. We bossed extra time as well but we could not get a winner and it went to penalties.”
Frank McKeown had missed one for Stranraer and 8 players had scored by the time Rovers captain Ciaran Donnelly stepped up with the chance to keep the Coatbridge side in the Second Division and Stranraer in the Third.
What happened next was heart-breaking for Mitchell as he explained: “I got a hand to his penalty and pushed it up in the air. It hit the underside of the bar and bounced on the line behind me. I thought I had saved it but it rolled in the wrong direction and just went over the line before I could get to it.”
“We had a great squad and should have gone up. We had Steven Stirling and Scott Taggart who are both now at Morton, Martin Grehan who is with Alloa and Steven Noble who moved up to Peterhead. All good players and all good guys.”
The season ended however Stranraer and their players could not really plan too far ahead as there was a chance they would get moved up a Division due to Rangers joining the SFL.
Mitchell said: “Stories started to emerge that it could go either way for us and in the end we were put up into the Second Division at short notice. It was a hard time for Rangers but it was also a hard time for us as we had lost a lot of good players and could not replace them as we were not sure what Division we would be in.”
After a sluggish start to the Second Division Knox was removed from office and his assistant Stephen Aitken was moved up. He kick-started their campaign and the Blues have climbed off the foot of the table and now have a good chance of not being involved in any relegation issues.
Mitchell said: “Every manager has their own way of doing things and it is hard to say what is different under Stephen but we are now getting better results. We had been in the bottom two from September to March so it was a relief when we finally moved up into eighth place.”
“We cannot relax as you can find yourself back in the bottom two really easily so we are not taking anything for granted.”
Mitchell summed up this season saying: “It has been a great season in some ways as we have had derby matches against Ayr and Queen of the South. The grounds are all quite far apart but the games are classed as derbies. They have been great games and had decent crowds at them as well.”
“We have played well in them especially the ones against Ayr but Queen of the South have been too good against us so far. We still have to play them again and hopefully now that they have the league wrapped up they will take the foot off the gas and we can benefit.”
“I don’t know if they will mind you as they have been flying all season.”
Stranraer’s next game is against Brechin and then they meet East Fife in a crunch game on Tuesday and Mitchell knows what will be key to getting points on board as he explained: “Our past couple of results have not been great but we can still stay in this League without the aid of Play-Offs. The gaffer and his assistant Stevie Farrell keep telling us to look up the way and that has got us up to eighth and we will keep looking up the way.”
“Three points is the target in the Brechin game and we are determined to secure them before heading to East Fife. There is a great spirit amongst our squad and we want to get up that table and stay there.”
After a summer and a season of change Mitchell was asked what he fancied for next season and he said: “I am out of contract at the end of the season and to be honest I have not even thought about what happens next. I just concentrate on the next game.”