The year was 1946 and not only did the chance meeting have an immediate consequence – it had a repercussion more than 60 years later...
The story starts when the girlfriend, Eileen, who was to become Johnny Paton’s wife, asked him to Sunday lunch with her family in north London.
It was just after the Second World War when Paton, who was from Glasgow and playing for Celtic, was stationed in north London still doing his national service.
Eileen had been unsure about going out with the young Glaswegian at a time when many footballers were paid barely as much as other working men.
‘She asked me what I did for a living,’ Paton says. ‘I told her I played football for Glasgow Celtic up in Scotland, which meant nothing to her. I could tell her mind was going round wondering how being a footballer was going to pay the rent and other bills.’
The moment he knew she had overcome these misgivings was when she invited him to her home in Greenford. ‘The family want to meet you, Johnny,’ she said. ‘Can you come for a roast dinner on Sunday?’
‘I wasn’t going to miss that,’ Paton says. ‘A roast dinner. Never heard of it up in Scotland. We got mince and potatoes for Sunday dinner up there.’
It goes without saying, of course, that a bigger reason than the meat and potatoes for accepting the invitation was Eileen.
At this point, Paton says, fate took over. Walking from Sudbury Town tube station to keep his lunch date with Eileen’s family he noticed another man coming briskly down the road towards him.
‘There were only the two of us,’ he says. ‘There was no traffic on the roads in those days.’
To his surprise, the other man stopped and – to his even greater surprise – said: ‘I know you, you’re Johnny Paton, aren’t you? Glasgow Celtic.’
Paton took a closer look and saw it was Johnny Harris, the captain of Chelsea. ‘He was much better known than I was,’ Paton says.
‘Yeah,’ Harris said, ‘what are you doing down here in London?’
Paton explained he was waiting for his demob and travelling up to Scotland every Friday night to play for Celtic on the Saturday.
‘I’m under contract to them. I’ve got to get my wages.’
Harris had a better idea: ‘Why don’t you come and play for us?’
And that extraordinary chance meeting was how Paton came to play for Chelsea for the 1946-47 season.
‘It was a unique one-season transfer,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t a loan, it was a complete transfer and a complete transfer back. It was because I wanted to be here in London with Eileen.’
In his season with Chelsea, Paton played 18 times and scored three goals, but it was many years later, in old age, that he had more of an influence on a Chelsea match than he ever did as a player.
In December 2013, eight months after his ninetieth birthday – by now he was the oldest surviving Chelsea player – the club invited him to watch a Sunday match against Southampton at Stamford Bridge. And once there he was invited to go onto the pitch at halftime to address the crowd. He agreed because there was something he badly wanted to say.
He remembered that in his Chelsea playing days he thought the home support was pretty pathetic compared to what he was used to at Celtic. And now, nearly 70 years later, he felt the same.
Chelsea were losing 1-0 to Southampton at halftime and the crowd were not giving the team the lift they badly needed. So he took the microphone: ‘I’ve waited a long time to say this. I’m 90 years old but I’m very, very proud to have worn the Chelsea jersey, 67 years ago, on the left wing, when we beat the Arsenal in an FA Cup tie.’
The stadium, which had been quiet, erupted and the noise rose to a crescendo as Paton asked twice: ‘Do you really want Chelsea to win this game?’
He now had a captive audience. ‘Well,’ he told them, ‘I want to hear the Chelsea roar. The players on the field, in my opinion, won’t win this game – you will.’
‘The place went mad,’ Paton says. And down in the Chelsea dressing room, John Terry told Paton later, the players were aware of a buzz going on and wondered what it was.
After the match, Chelsea having won 3-1 after scoring within minutes of the restart, a message reached Paton that Jose Mourinho, the Chelsea manager, wanted to see him. ‘I’d never met him,’ Paton says. ‘And you know what he said? I couldn’t believe it. He said, “Johnny, I want to thank you. You helped us to win this match”.’
Paton told him that he had merely done what came naturally.
Johnny Paton, the loveliest of men, died aged 92 in 2015
This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing and now out in paperback