Last year, Andrew Mills was combining a full time job with playing football. Since then, he’s been to Galatasaray’s Türk Telekom Stadı, Athletic Bilbao’s San Mamés and Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. It’s fair to say a lot has changed for the English goalkeeper.
“It’s been a crazy experience,” says the 23-year-old who now plays for Swedish club Östersunds (ÖFK). “I’ve travelled to some fantastic stadiums, and then the Emirates was a special night, one that I’ll never forget and it was a dream come true!”
It seems like a fairy tale story but it has been one of hard work and sacrifice following the young goalkeeper’s release from his first senior club, Macclesfield Town.
Having spent four years with the Silkmen and having made the bench for the first team on several occasions, the Liverpool-born shot-stopper found himself taking a break from the game following his release and needed a route back into the game, that’s when he stumbled upon the League Football Education (LFE) programme.
“I came pretty late on the LFE programme as I had a 18 month professional contract with Macclesfield.
“After being released, I went to a few non-league teams but then stopped playing football for a while and started going out with friends so I wanted to get away for a fresh start.
“Then just by chance one night, I was on the LFE website and saw a player placement programme and thought I’d just apply not expecting anything back.
“Three weeks later, I was on the plane over to Sweden.”
And that would be the start of Mills’ journey back towards professional football but it was not just a simple passage straight back to playing full-time.
Mills initially landed at Arnäs IF in the sixth tier of Swedish football in 2014. The glamour of the Emirates Stadium was still a long way off at this stage.
Then, after his three month programme with LFE was up, the goalkeeper moved up a division to join Friska Viljor helping them to promotion and then he moved on to IFK Östersund. This was when things really started to move fast for Mills.
“I played for a team in the same town as ÖFK last season so I was lucky enough to be in training with them one or two times a week throughout the season.
“This then lead to me signing a one-month loan deal as one of their goalkeepers had got injured.”
The former Macclesfield goalkeeper was thrust straight into the deep end as he was named on the bench for several of Östersunds’ Europa League qualifying matches in what was the club’s first ever European campaign.
“It was kind of surreal going from playing in front of 100 to 200 people to then travelling across Europe being named in the squad.
“It happened so fast but I loved every minute of it. I think that one-month loan probably got me to where I am now. It made me realise how much I wanted to get back into the professional game so it gave me that extra kick to work harder and push myself that little more each day.”
Surreal is certainly one word for it. Mills had gone from the Swedish fourth-tier to being involved in European football. His first game involved in the squad was no other than an away trip to the intimidating Türk Telekom Stadı where the Swedish club famously managed to overcome Turkish giants Galatasaray over two legs.
After that, he kept his spot on the bench as his side won 3-1 on aggregate against Fola Esch from Luxembourg, who incidentally had an Englishman of their own, Alex Cvetkovic.
After impressing on his loan spell, Mills secured a permanent deal with the club that everyone was talking about due to their European heroics and the return to full-time football was a big change.
“The step up was massive,” says the Liverpool native. “From training to food diets and gym work. I went from training two to three times a week to then it being my full time job again.
“The standard is so high in training so you can’t afford to be feeling off the odd day or two. Every day you have to be at your very best, which is something I adapted to after my first couple of months.
“The facilities here are quality. The food and gym plans are a big help and are something you really miss while playing in the lower divisions.”
I am sure you are all familiar with Östersunds’ story now but it is a story which should not be underestimated. In a nutshell, when former West Bromwich Albion player Graham Potter took over the club in 2011, they were in the fourth-tier. They’re now one of the strongest clubs in the country’s top flight and he lead them to the Swedish Cup in 2017, which secured them their place in Europe.
Potter has brought in several other Englishmen during his time at the helm, including former Middlesbrough youth player Curtis Edwards and ex-York City man Jamie Hopcutt and Mills says having his compatriots about the club has helped.
“It’s always nice having English lads round you, especially when you’re the new guy,” says Mills. “But after living here for four years and meeting so many different people, it’s never really a problem getting to know lads from different countries.
“Of course, it’s nice having English lads in the team who have the same type of banter from back home and I think with Graham being English it made it a little bit easier when first speaking to him. He’s a really nice guy who has also played for Macclesfield too in the past so he knows my old manager.”
Potter has understandably been linked with several jobs back at home following the incredible success he has had in Sweden, not least with former club Southampton, and Mills is full of praise for the 42-year-old.
“The job he’s done at ÖFK pretty much speaks for itself but the way he thinks and puts his ideas across is fantastic.
“To have him as a manager is quality; the way he sees the game is different, he always has you thinking and I think since Graham took over and brought ÖFK up, the style of Swedish football has changed.
“He gives you a lot of confidence so you’re not afraid to try new things and make mistakes. I think he’d be just as successful in England or any top league in Europe.”
Not only is the English coach hugely successful with his tactics on the pitch but his off-pitch antics for building chemistry among his players are famed across the country. He once got his players to perform Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake to more than 2,500 local residents.
But for Mills, who is loving being back in full time football, it is time to knuckle down.
“For now, I just want to focus on proving myself at this level. This year is a big learning curve for me and I have a lot of things to work on so I’m not looking too far ahead,” he says.
“i know nothing is guaranteed in football so I want to take full advantage of the opportunity I’ve been given.”
Although he admits that it would be good to eventually move back to England to be closer to his family, after four years in Sweden he is settled and happy where he is.
Mills’ story is one many a footballer can take heart from. Being released from your first senior club does not always have to spell the end and sometimes the bravest decisions can lead to a whole new career – as the English goalkeeper has proven.