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Where are they now: John Mackie

22 November 2012

Ask footballers what they would have been doing had they not made it as a professional and many struggle to muster a plan B.

Football is quite often the only thing that ever interested them, and such was their dedication at an early age that they succeeded where others failed.

John Mackie, however, who represented Reading, Leyton Orient and Brentford and who now runs his own fruit and vegetable stall in London, always had his alternative mapped out.

As a youngster, he suffered rejection after rejection and was close to giving up on his dream. He therefore worked in the market and later a family shop - perfect practice for the stall he would set up when his professional career came to an end in 2008.

"I started working on a market stall when I was younger," Mackie explained. "I then helped my uncle out in his shop until I turned pro with Reading, so it's always something I've done.

"Now, I have my own fruit and veg stall towards Mornington Crescent. It's on Camden High Street, if you know that. I sell fruit and veg, salad, and occasionally flowers. I'll be selling Christmas trees in the next couple of weeks as well."

Not surprisingly, life at the market is as far removed from a professional footballer as you can imagine.

Days of combining training with free time have been replaced by 15/16-hour shifts that start in the middle of the night.

"It's not easy. I get up at around 2.30am in the morning, go to the market to buy the produce and then set my stall up. I'm there until 4.30pm/5pm and don't get home until a couple of hours later, but it's got to be done.

"It's fine in the summer because you know you're going to be busy and you'll make money. It's nice working outside in the sun when we get it! It beats working and sweating away in an office. But in the winter, when it's freezing, wet, and you're getting up in the dark and going home in the dark it's hard."

As you'd imagine, Mackie struggles to replace the highs of football in the marketplace, but he does his best to try and recreate the banter he used to enjoy in the dressing room.

"I try and make the most of the days by having a laugh, but I'd rather be playing football," he admitted. "But it's what I know and it's what pays the bills. One thing's for sure, the market banter can never replicate the football banter, that's what I miss most.

"I have staff with me and we have a laugh, but football banter is brilliant. I miss that and the feeling of winning. I don't miss the long journeys to Carlisle on a Tuesday night and I don't miss the losing, but that winning feeling is something you never replace."

Mackie experienced many ups and downs as a professional but enjoyed promotion twice.

However, his football career almost ended before it even got started, only a case of being at the right place at the right time helping to get him started.

"To be honest, while I did alright at school nothing really interested me other than playing football. As a young kid I was with Arsenal and West Ham [for two years] as a schoolboy. I was released at 15/16 and had trials everywhere, from Watford to Swindon - loads of teams.

"It was always the same story: 'you're a good player but not better than what we've got'. At that stage it was hard to take, so I decided just to play Sunday football with my pals and work in my uncle's shop down at Highbury.

"It wasn't until I worked in Highbury that I got my break. The old kit man at Arsenal, Vic Akers, used to run the Arsenal ladies team, he was assistant manager at Crawley and played for the Arsenal staff team in the old JVC centre at Highbury.

"I was asked to go and play a few games with them [the Arsenal staff team] in my lunchtimes. Anyway, after a couple of games, Vic asked me if I fancied a couple of games for Crawley. The manager, Colin Pates, signed me at 19."

Of course, the Crawley Mackie represented then are a different beast to the club that finds itself battling for promotion from npower League 1 now, but it proved the perfect breeding ground for the young defender.

"Crawley are four divisions higher now than they were when I played for them.

"We won the Sussex Senior Cup and had a couple of decent FA Cup runs, nothing close to what they've achieved recently, but they're a good club and I have a lot of happy memories there.

"I always look out for their results, just as I do Reading and Orient."

Mackie signed for the Royals aged 23, a move that owed much to the appointment of Alan Pardew as manager in 1999.

"During my time at Crawley I'd had trials at Bournemouth and Chelsea, but I impressed Alan Pardew during a trial game for Reading.

"Pards was caretaker at the time but didn't get the gig. Instead, Tommy Burns got it and didn't take me on, but Pards said if he ever got the job he'd give me a call.

"You think to yourself, 'yeah right, whatever', but he was true to his word. He got the job, I got the call and I signed a two-year deal.

"Pardew did well in my first season to keep Reading in League 1. After that, we got to the Play-Offs, where we lost to Walsall. I featured heavily the season after that. I played in all of the last 23 games of which we only lost one and we went on to get promoted, which was a fantastic achievement. That was the start of their success story."

Mackie's journey with Reading ended with that promotion, but he experienced the feeling again after joining Leyton Orient.

After a below-par first season with the O's, the second campaign certainly made up for it.

"After about 10 games [in the second season] I was made captain and we never let go of an automatic spot. In the end it went down to the last day of the season, which was a bit nerve-wracking, but it was a fantastic season.

"To win promotion as captain was fantastic. At Reading I felt like a bit-part player. I only played 23 matches the season we went up where as at Orient I was captain and played most weeks. I experienced all the highs and lows that come with a promotion season, even survived all the rollockings. I played my part and ended up winning four awards at the end of season do.

"I enjoyed a good partnership with Gabriel Zakuani that season," Mackie continues. "He was only 16 but had played for the first team a few times. He hadn't played alongside anyone who took care of him, so my job was to talk him through games.

"You knew he was a great talent and he could catch pigeons, he was that quick, but he needed guidance and I feel that's what I gave him. We enjoyed playing together and we knew each other's strengths and weaknesses. It was a shame he went but the club got some good money for him and he's gone onto brighter things."

Unfortunately, Mackie's career didn't follow suit.

A move across London to Brentford was supposed to culminate with a third career promotion, but the Bees never got started following relegation to npower League 2 in 2007.

"I went there with good intentions," Mackie reflects. "Brentford had just been relegated, so [manager] Terry Butcher was after experienced players to win them automatic promotion straight away. Promotion was the aim, no questions asked.

"Butcher had been promised an unlimited shopping list and I was his first signing, but it never really happened for us. We got a couple of players in but most of them were loan players from the top two leagues, so they had no experience of competitive football.

"I took the brunt of the stick being captain, which was hard to take after the modest success I'd had. I'd never really experienced that before, so it was tough.

"I play in a few charity games these days, " Mackie concludes. "I played for a Reading team a few weeks ago. It's hard because when you have your own business that relies on you, you can't afford to get injured and miss a day's work. I'd love to keep playing, but the body doesn't enjoy it anymore and it's too much of a gamble."

Instead, it's back to the apples and pears for Mackie who can at least entertain his punters with stories from a career that embraced three Football League clubs and two promotions - that's not bad at all.

And while his new venture is encapsulated by hard work, he has never been a stranger to that.

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