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Former Leyton Orient captain returns to his roots at Islington greengrocer’s shop

John Mackie in front of his greengrocer's shop in Finsbury Park John Mackie in front of his greengrocer's shop in Finsbury Park

Ben Kosky
Thursday, March 13, 2014
7:12 AM

For footballers who graced the very top level of the game, the prospect of their careers drawing to a close may not cause enormous concern.

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Financial rewards for the elite are so great that retirement brings few fears – but that is not the reality for the vast majority of players, who must find alternative means of support when their prowess on the pitch wanes.

That can be a frightening scenario for some who have only ever known life as a professional footballer and often lack the qualifications to move into another career.

Yet there are others such as John Mackie, who grew up in Highbury and spent six years working in a greengrocer’s shop before embarking on successful spells with both Reading and Leyton Orient.

And the 37-year-old’s career came full circle last year when he took over the same shop – White Brothers in Blackstock Road, Finsbury Park – and resumed the fruit and vegetable trade (as well as flowers, sold by his wife Jane).

“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea getting up at 2am and working through to 6pm, but it earns me a living,” Mackie told the Gazette.

“When I was growing up, the shop was our local greengrocer’s. I worked there from the age of 17, when Nick and Tim White ran the place and I started to get involved again on my days off while I was still at Orient.

“It got too much for Tim about a year ago and he asked if I’d like to take over the lease on the shop. For me, going back there was like going home in a way.

“The place was exactly the same as it had been when I was 17 – it had never really had a lick of paint! So I decided to smarten it up and do a refurbishment.

“As youngsters, you might think football’s going to last forever, but careers can come to an end abruptly through injury and loss of form. I’ve always felt it was a fine line.

“Some become coaches or managers and I took my first couple of coaching badges, but I soon realised there were thousands of ex-pros taking those courses, many with a lot more experience than I had.”

Mackie, who went to Highbury Grove School and played for the borough as a youngster, always dreamed of an opportunity to represent Arsenal, the team he supported.

Although he had trials for professional clubs such as Nottingham Forest, the defender was still supplementing his income by playing part-time for Crawley Town, then a Southern League side, at the age of 22.

But he impressed Reading’s caretaker boss Alan Pardew in a trial match and, although he was overlooked for the permanent job, Pardew promised to keep Mackie in mind if circumstances changed.

That pledge was kept a year later, when Reading invited Pardew to succeed Tommy Burns and he offered the Londoner, who had also been playing at Market Road and Hackney Marshes, the chance to turn pro.

Mackie spent five years at the Berkshire club, helping them to promotion to the Championship in 2002 and the play-off semi-finals the following year, where they lost to Wolves.

“When I signed for Reading, I was on £500 a week. It was a take it or leave it deal and I took it, even though I was probably getting more from the shop and Crawley combined,” Mackie recalled.

“Effectively I got within a game and a half of earning £5,000 a week – that’s what my next contract would have been if we’d gone up to the Premier League. Unfortunately Paul Ince scored a screamer in the second leg and that was it, the dream was over.”

That was as close as Mackie would get to sampling top-flight football, but he enjoyed further success after his departure from Reading in 2004, when he moved to Brisbane Road.

Appointed as Orient captain by manager Martin Ling, he led the team to promotion as they clinched a place in League Two with a 3-2 victory at Oxford on the final day of the season.

And the former Os skipper, who will be among the Brisbane Road crowd when they take on Brentford in Saturday’s vital promotion clash, hopes to see his old club move up to the Championship come May.

“Orient and Reading are the teams whose results I look out for, but Orient probably means a bit more to me because I was captain when the team got promoted and made some good friends there,” said Mackie.

“The fans were really good to me too and hopefully they can get another promotion this year.

“It’s probably going to need more points to go up than ever before but that’s the way Orient always like to do it – the hard way, just like the team I played in.

“There are probably a few twists and turns to come, but fingers crossed they can do it.”

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