It’s funny how things work out. I was playing football at a fairly good level for Brimsdown Rovers, when disaster struck. I picked up a serious back injury that meant I had to stop playing, and life changed completely - it was about six months before I could walk properly again.
Going to watch the games wasn’t for me, but I wanted to stay involved in the sport. As it happened I was living on Gillespie Road at the time, and my ex-wife suggested that I give stewarding a try. So I applied to Arsenal, was taken on, and things went from there.
Initially I was working matchdays in a standard stewarding role. A couple of years later, in 2000, the Club moved its Champions League games back to Highbury after playing at Wembley. During the summer they had to make various preparations, changing the advertising boards and things like that. I had a phone call asking if I’d like to come and help, so I joined a few others in lending a hand. We were working for a sub-contractor, Stan Homes, who still work with us to this day.
"We pride ourselves on making sure everything is ready for a matchday and that no call-outs to make repairs are needed"
I did well, so they decided to keep me on as their man at Arsenal, primarily looking after and maintaining the seats in the stadium. They taught me how to spot a broken seat and repair it, and away I went. In 2001, Arsenal themselves offered me a contract - I was thrilled. From then on, I have been in charge of looking after the seats, first at Highbury and now at Emirates. The seats at Highbury were completely different to the ones we use now, much weaker - they could break if you so much as leaned on them!
Maintaining them was a constant job, and I reached the stage where I could literally look at a seat and tell that it was going to break.
I loved Highbury. The place had so much character, and the feeling of community and family that we had is something that I will never forget. My mentor was a wonderful man who many of you will remember - Paddy Galligan. He looked after me, showed me the ropes, introduced me to people and generally made sure I was alright. Sometimes he’d take me up onto the roof of the East Stand with him, putting the flags up, and I’d look down upon the matchday crowd beneath us. Nobody else in the world had that view, and it made the heart beat that bit faster. There’s no feeling like working in a football stadium. I’ve sometimes worked late at night after midweek games, the lights on, just me outside. It’s something special.
Moving to Emirates saw my job change dramatically, with a range of new challenges. Not only do I look after the seating, but I also move the segregation that separates the home fans from the visitors. It’s like a giant Meccano set, with a piece for every step.
When I find out how many fans our visitors are bringing, we move the seats and build the barriers accordingly. We have to move it around far more than we did a few years ago - when we first moved here opponents would bring 3,000 every time, with the novelty of a new stadium, but now it varies quite a bit.
"I loved Highbury. The place had so much character, and the feeling of community and family that we had is something that I will never forget"
FA Cup games, when opposition fans sometimes sit upstairs too, are another challenge - we call the upper tier ‘Mount Emirates’, and it takes 20 men to get everything up there. If it’s a quick turnaround between home games, I sometimes sleep in my workshop, making sure that the segregation is dismantled straight after the match so that we can get started straight away in the morning, The seats are much easier to manage here, though - even though there are more of them. I look after them with James, my rookie; after a game we’ll be given a list of seats that need tightening up or fixing, and will go round mending them. Most sets of supporters are good these days, so we don’t see too much vandalism.
We pride ourselves on making sure everything is ready for a matchday and that no call-outs to make repairs are needed. If we achieve that, then we’ve done our job properly. I do other bits and pieces, too.
On the day that the move to Emirates was confirmed, I was put in charge of driving the board of directors to Islington Town Hall. I dropped them off and then picked them up later in the evening. They entered the minibus one by one, and I remember Danny Fiszman stopping and saying to me: “Neil, we’ve got you a new stadium.” It was quite a moment. I’m very involved on matchdays, quite apart from dealing with seats and segregation. I used to delegate where different stewards would work, and now I help set up the directors’ area and the dugouts, help the groundstaff bring the training goals down, all kinds of jobs like that.
It’s a different feel nowadays, and the Club has changed a lot, but I understand that. The business needed to expand, to adapt to the wider business climate and developments within football, and the global reach that Arsenal now has seems very exciting.
Read more Arsenal People stories in the Official Matchday Programme
Although I’m a Hackney lad, I’ve actually supported Manchester United since I was young. But my whole family - my kids and my wife - are Arsenal fans and I’d never want that to change.
I love Arsenal - what the Club has done for me and for my family, how it’s given me the chance to have some of the best and most rewarding times of my life. Although there have been changes, many important things remain exactly the same. One thing’s for sure: I would rather be here than anywhere else in the world
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