Day the great Pele became an Arsenal fan

The elderly, grand-looking gent sat in the first class train carriage had almost a regal air about him. I’d noticed him and his companion, a woman his equal in age and eminence, as I made my way to the toilet as the old slam-door rattler ferried me and my Dad home from the Arsenal.

I was a cocky, inquisitive 10-year-old so when, as I walked back past, he beckoned me in to the Southern Railways sanctum of the posh I had little hesitation in accepting. “I notice you are a supporter of the Gunners,” he said, as he gestured to my attire; I was head to toe in scarves, rosettes and badges (all co-ordinated by my Mum) as was de rigueur for any self-respecting football fan in the mid-70s. Hard to miss really, I thought, and considered for a split second telling him so with a cheeky quip.

I am glad I didn’t.

I took a seat and we got talking about the game (if only I remembered who we’d played that day. I’ve got a nagging feeling it was Norwich at home circa 1975ish) and all things Arsenal as we headed back to Sussex after a day at Highbury. His forthright views, knowledge and passion for my beloved Gunners – his too, of course – struck me at once.

So here I was. Me, a council estate boy bedecked in red and white chewing the cud with this booted and suited, silver-haired chap who somehow personified the majesty of Arsenal. He spoke with a cut-glass accent, and he could easily have been the Queen’s cousin, I thought, or at the very least an important High Court judge.

He was neither. But he was, in fact, as he told me midway through our half-hour conversation, a director of Arsenal Football Club. His name was Stuart McIntyre and to counter me espousing incredulity he proved his Marble Hall credentials by opening the match programme and showing me his place in the list of Directors. A few lines beneath the then chairman Dennis Hill-Wood’s name came “S. C McIntyre.” It was he. I gazed silently at the letters for a full five minutes.

Only if our saviour Liam Brady himself was sitting opposite me could I have been more impressed at the time. More chit chat, an introduction to his wife and our time came to a close as his station, Arundel, was reached.

It was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful relationship. I would abandon Dad and make a bee-line for Mr Mac and his missus, think her name was Mary, in First Class after every home game and he would regale me with stories from within the corridors of power but also paid a keen interest in my thoughts on the game we had witnessed.

By definition the match of the day had been viewed from different vantage points set within vastly different social surroundings but all within a goal kick of each other.

My position was six steps back to the right of the North bank goal looking at the pitch, next to the big Scottish bloke* and the card players, high up enough to see below the man with the jean jacket covered in metal badges and his wife who waved an Arsenal Union Jack every time we scored. The couple were always on Match of the Day and The Big Match when our highlights were shown, as, occasionally were me and Dad.

In contrast Mr Mac saw the game unfold from an imperious position in the Directors’ Box in the East Stand and shared cucumber sandwiches at half-time with dignitaries from the visiting clubs, who, he told me on countless occasions were always impressed by the fact that Arsenal displayed flowers in their team’s colours by way of a welcome (Try as I might I can’t recall any of the North Bank boys or ClockEnders offering any such fragrant hospitality to away fans, I have to say).

Despite the fact that me and Mr Mac, a London banker of some repute I later found out, were worlds apart at almost every juncture we shared a love of our club and our common goal was the advancement of the Arsenal. Our friendship flourished and was acknowledged every December when the official Arsenal Christmas card would drop through our door, signed by the Macs.

But better was to come.

After a cup final hiatus of six years Terry Neill led us to the Wembley in 1978 where our opponents were to be Ipswich Town. The clamour for tickets was unreal. Arsenal were back at the Twin Towers for the first time since the defeat against Leeds in 1972 and every fan worth his salt wanted to be there. Even though we sent off our programme tokens me and Dad knew we had no chance of getting a ticket.

A week before the final we had Boro at home and we won the game but more memorable was the journey home on the train with, inevitably, Mr Mac. After some small talk the subject quickly switched to Wembley and the conversation went something like this:

Mr Mac: “Are you looking forward to the final, Carl?”

Me: “I am but it would be so much better to be there. Me and my Dad couldn’t get tickets.”

Mr Mac: “Oh, I see. But you would like to go, is that right?”

Me: “Well yes, sure, I mean, yes definitely but it’s next week and we have run out of time. And if we found some on the black market Dad says they’d be too expensive.”

Mr Mac, reaching into his inside pocket and thus evoking a Willy Wonka Golden ticket moment: “Well, I have two here for you. Would you go and get your father?”

Cue joy unconfined. Of course, we lost the final 1-0 but Mr Mac, bless him, came good with tickets for the next two finals against United in 1979 and West Ham the year after. He even sorted out a few of my mates from Bognor, too.

We kept up our fortnightly gatherings on the train did Mr Mac and me until old age and all that comes with it meant he could no longer travel. He told me many, many stories over the years but one in particular that sticks out was when Villa won the title at Highbury in 1981 (although we beat them on the day). The ground was packed with 57,000 fans at a sun-kissed Home of Football and for some reason the great Pele was paraded before the kick-off and, naturally, received a rapturous reception as he saluted the supporters.

Mr Mac was there to greet him as he left the pitch and recalled to me that so moved was the legendary Brazilian star by the amazing adulation afforded him in his Highbury anointment, he shed a tear, punched the air and cried: “Ar-se-nal!” And that is how Pele became an Arsenal fan.

Mr Mac and Mary are long gone but as you would expect, live long in my memory and have a special place in my Arsenal heart.

*First man I ever heard shout: “Come on you rip-roaring red machiiiiiiine”.

CARL ELDRIDGE – on Twitter @eldoemdia


Arsenal fan for 40 years. Schoolboys, North Bank, Clock End then East Upper. Then Emirates. AFC dream team: Wilson, Dixon, Sansom, Adams, Pates, Brady, Williams, Pires, Bergkamp, Henry, Wright. Subs: Seaman, Eldridge, Wilshere, RVP, Ball. Manager: Arsene Chapman.