As an Arsenal supporter, John Mackie dreamt of playing professionally and working at Highbury. Now he has his wish. His red shirt may not bear the Arsenal logo and his afternoon workplace may be a few minutes walk from the marbled halls, but the 29-year-old central defender still has every reason to smile.
Mackie captains Leyton Orient, who are going for promotion from League Two and enjoying FA Cup success. Having outplayed Fulham at Craven Cottage in the third round, they go to Charlton Athletic on Saturday aiming to claim another Premiership scalp. Not that Mackie is spending his afternoons dreaming of Cup glory. After training he heads for the fruit and veg shop he runs just down the road from the home of his childhood heroes.
Mackie turned professional when he was 23 and spent years juggling his sport with work in the greengrocery business. He remains determined to prepare for life after football. He employs others to do the day-to-day work in his shop but keeps a close eye on the business and is happy to do his turn behind the counter.
Trials with Arsenal, West Ham United, Swindon and Watford failed to open up a football career for Mackie when he left school. "I was encouraged to get on to a YTS scheme, but I'd got a bit disheartened after all the unsuccessful trials," he said. "They usually said the same thing: 'You're good, but no better than what we have.' It didn't help that I was quite small. I'd done work experience on a fruit and veg stall at Kentish Town and was offered a job there."
Mackie played for a pub team and for Kingsbury Town in the Ryman League before moving to a job in the fruit and veg shop he now runs in Highbury. The 17-year-old played in a lunchtime league for an Arsenal staff team and met Vic Akers, the kit man, who was also the assistant manager of Crawley Town.
"He invited me to play in reserve games and they signed me on £50 a week. I signed on again for the next season and got up to £75 a week. I stayed for four and a half years. When I was 19 I took over the shop where I'd been working. On Tuesdays I would get up at four in the morning to go to the markets, work until four in the afternoon, spend an hour and a half driving to Crawley, train or play a match, and spend an hour and a half driving home."
Another trial, at Bournemouth, ended in familiar fashion, but a game for Reading's reserves, managed by Alan Pardew, proved a turning point. "I thought I did really well. Pards said if he ever got a job as a first-team manager he'd sign me. He was true to his word."
Mackie had joined Sutton United by the time Pardew took over at Reading. "I was 23 and, although I knew people like Ian Wright didn't turn professional until they were about my age, I was beginning to think time was running out. The money Reading were offering was less than I was earning from the shop and playing at Sutton, but it was a chance I had to take.
"I kept the shop on for a while. Eventually I gave it up to concentrate on football, though I took it back last year. I've already done my first coaching badge and when I retire I'd love to coach or manage, but jobs are limited. You have to think about life without football. The fruit and veg business is something I know and enjoy."
Mackie made 71 League appearances in four years at Reading. They lost only one of the 27 games he played during promotion from what is now League One, but he sat on the bench as Reading lost to Wolves in the following season's play-offs. He never got beyond the FA Cup third round but played in a 1-0 defeat in the fourth round of the League Cup against a Chelsea attack featuring Hernan Crespo and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.
Steve Coppell had tried to sign Mackie a year earlier at Brentford, but told him he did not feature in his plans when he succeeded Pardew at Reading two seasons ago. There were no hard feelings -"I appreciated the honesty" - and Mackie has enjoyed his former colleagues' progress towards the Premiership. Apart from his eventual replacement, Ibrahima Sonko, the Royals' first-choice back five is unchanged since his own time there.
Peterborough, Colchester, Stevenage and Dagenham wanted to sign Mackie, but Martin Ling, Orient's new manager, impressed him most. With Barry Hearn at the helm the club are ambitious - the chairman will take the players to Las Vegas if they win promotion - and in his second full season Ling is showing that footballing sides can make headway at this level.
"The majority of the teams that get promoted from this division are big solid sides who don't play a lot of football but are well organised and strong physically and mentally," Mackie said. "The manager would probably admit that when he took over he thought we could play total football and get promotion, but it didn't happen for us last season and we've developed another side to our game. We play football at the right time but we can also be quite resilient.
"The gaffer reminds me a lot of Pards. They're both meticulous in analysing the opposition. We had Fulham watched three times and they played three different systems. In training we prepared to play against all three, including the one they eventually chose."
The 2-1 victory was surprisingly comfortable. "From the very start we sensed a few of their players weren't totally up for it. I don't know whether it was a lack of respect for us or for the Cup, but it made us realise we had a chance. And the backing we had from the 6,000 supporters we took was fantastic."
A similar following will go to Saturday's match hoping for another slip by Premiership opponents. And if anyone is capable of throwing a banana skin into the opposition path it is surely their greengrocer captain.
Captain's Log: Mackie's verdict on his Leyton Orient team-mates
Glyn Garner (goalkeeper, aged 29) Making a name as a penalty saver: he stopped one against Fulham and another on Saturday at Wrexham.
Justin Miller (right back, 25) Sometimes goes to sleep in matches, but he's a very good player. Shout at him and he's OK.
Gaby Zakuani (central defence, 19) Could definitely play at a higher level. Good in the air and on the ground. Pace to die for.
Matt Lockwood (left back, 29) Great left foot and another who could undoubtedly play in a higher division.
Shane Tudor (right wing, 23) Very quick. Loves running with the ball.
Michael Simpson (central midfield, 31) Sometimes unnoticed by the fans and press, but we know how important he is.
Craig Easton (central midfield, 26) Class act. We knew very little about him when he joined from Livingston last summer, but he's been excellent.
Daryl McMahon (central midfield, 22) Hasn't had much of a chance this season, but he's probably our most gifted player. Very good technique.
Joe Keith (left midfield, 27) Great left foot, great skills. Scored against Fulham.
Gary Alexander (striker, 26) His record speaks for itself. He scored his 100th goal at the weekend in 300-odd appearances.
Jabo Ibehre (striker, 22) Big, strong and a key player. He's obviously disappointed to be suspended, but promotion is our priority and I'd rather he missed a Cup match than a League game.
Lee Steele (striker, 32) Our leading scorer last year. He's had injury problems but came on as sub in the last couple of games.Reuse content