Pat Nevin: I was the normal one, it was the rest of football that was weird

‘It’s okay to be an outsider. You can still have a football career without having to fit in’

 Former player and BBC Radio broadcaster Pat Nevin has released a new book called The Accidental Footballer. File photograph: Getty Images

Former player and BBC Radio broadcaster Pat Nevin has released a new book called The Accidental Footballer. File photograph: Getty Images

 

There’s a story about halfway through Pat Nevin’s memoir that just about sums up the absurdity of it all. The scene is the player’s bar at Everton, shortly after his arrival from Chelsea in 1988. Nevin is 25 years old, well established in the game but known to be a bit different from the average footballer. A bit of an oddball, in truth. But oddballs are people too.

A fan comes up and says he heard that Nevin is into opera. Nevin says he is and the fan asks if he’d have any interest in two tickets for the Pavarotti concert that’s coming up in a couple of weeks. Nevin is gobsmacked - even by the standards of insidery football privilege, Pavarotti tickets are absolute gold-dust. He bites the chap’s arm off and asks how on earth he’s able to swing that.

“Oh,” says the fan, “I do the big houses of wealthy people up in the north of Scotland. ”

“Ah,” says Nevin, “What, like you’re a painter or decorator or something and they’ll get the tickets for you?”

“No,” the chap says. “I mean, I ‘do’ the houses. I’m a burglar. I spotted some on the mantelpiece of a place I was the other day and I could go back and get them for you if you like . . . ”

This sort of thing seemed to happen to Nevin quite a bit. Not, you understand, the offers of big house larceny exactly. More that the slightly offbeat people in and around the game generally tended to locate him, on account of him being quite defiantly offbeat himself. Or, as he likes to put it, “I was the normal one, it was the rest of football that was weird.”

His book is called The Accidental Footballer and the opening scene has him being let go by Celtic’s Boys Club at the age of 16. While a queue of young hopefuls are fighting back the tears at having their dreams dashed, Nevin walks out of the room trying his best to look down-hearted in order to keep with the mood, only to break into a big smile when he gets outside. He never wanted to be a footballer and now, thanks to Celtic, he didn’t have to be. Bliss.

Irish

“I have an Irish passport,” Nevin says now, “and I know, as Irish people do, that kind of just happening into a career in anything isn’t that strange at all. I’ve talked to plenty of Irish players down the years as well and plenty of them never really set out to be footballers either. They could just as easily have been something else. It just kind of happened.

“Obviously when you have talent, it’s there as an option. And more so in modern times, there’s such an emphasis on devoting yourself to it and having that drive to get yourself to the top. But that wasn’t how it was for me. I loved playing and I trained for hours with my dad when I was a kid because I loved it. Not because I wanted to do it for a career. I wanted to go to university far more.”

Nevin’s heroes weren’t footballers, they were Joy Division and the Cocteau Twins and, most importantly, John Peel. One of his main reasons for joining Chelsea as a 20-year-old was that London was where all the best gigs were, which meant it’s where the legendary music DJ would be.

Pat Nevin in action for Chelsea in 1985. File photograph: Getty Images
Pat Nevin in action for Chelsea in 1985. File photograph: Getty Images

Some players spent their evenings in nightclubs and wine bars. Nevin spent his in the BBC Radio One studio, sitting in the background during Peel’s music show, helping to log tracks for the obscure bands he was playing to make sure they got their broadcast payments. He had made it his business to befriend Peel after coming down from Scotland and this was just another way of spending time with him.

Nevin was a terrific player, a jinky winger in the greatest of Scottish traditions. He was Chelsea’s Player of the Year twice in his five seasons at Stamford Bridge and though his time at Everton wasn’t as fruitful, played for Scotland at Euro 92 and was a mainstay at Tranmere, Motherwell and Kilmarnock up until his retirement in 2000. But his reputation beyond football was what made him interesting. He was a bit hipstery before there were hipsters, forged his own brand of intelligent disagreement before anyone thought it was worth forging.

“I tend to look for little traits of difference in modern footballers. And they are there. They’re just very well hidden these days. Football is a cross-section of society. People used to think I was unusual because I was into indie music, I was into serious literature, I was into the arts. But my answer was always, ‘Yeah, but what percentage of the regular population is into all those things?’ I would imagine it’s a small enough percentage.

“But mostly, my view on it was always that I was the normal one, it was football that was weird. They saw me as the odd one but really, the football industry is really odd. That was why I couldn’t wait to get away from it and why I was never really sure I wanted to be a part of it in the first place.

“If there’s any reason for the book, it’s partly because I want people to know - particularly youngsters who might come across the book - I want them to know that it’s okay to be an outsider. You can still have a football career without having to fit in. You don’t need to change yourself. You can actually be that outsider and be comfortable in who you are.”

That said, the sailing wasn’t always smooth. Most people he came across in the game didn’t really get him. Outside of football, his other sporting love was running and when he wasn’t down at the BBC, he would often take himself off of an evening for a brisk 10 miles through the London streets. A car pulled up beside him one night and when the window was rolled down, the Chelsea manager John Hollins was shouting out the window at him.

“What on earth are you doing Pat? Do we not train you hard enough to keep you fit?”

“Eh, well to be honest gaffer, no, not really. Not for me anyway.”

Hollins shook his head in disbelief and told him to get into the car to save his legs. Nevin got on well with Hollins - he didn’t with all of his managers but this one, he liked. Even so, the sense that he wasn’t entirely understood always hung in the air.

“I had lots of coaches and managers in my career. Most of them were rotten, to be quite honest. Just not up to much, even some of the big names. They were just not very good and they found themselves in the wrong place. But if there was a good one, with very specific strengths, I spent quite a lot of time watching them to see who they were and how they did it.

Creative side

“I think the fact that I tried to be myself meant that I eventually realised I wasn’t playing football for a career. I was doing it because I loved it. It had this artistic, creative side to it that I absolutely loved. I had this strange dichotomy that I was probably also the hardest worker at any club I was at. And within the game, they never quite understood that dichotomy. And I knew they didn’t get it. I knew it frightened managers because they hadn’t seen much of it before.

“But to me, you could absolutely love winning and absolutely love working hard and doing your best, while also being of the view that doing your best might not actually mean winning a trophy. It might be something more like self-actualisation, being myself, allowing the artistic side of my game to get across. Or it might be walking off at the end of it all and being able to say, ‘Well I did 20 years in the game - and it was fun!’ I always saw that as a better outcome than fighting and chasing and scratching and being horrible to people to get to the very top.”

He retired in 2000 and has since forged a career as the thinking pundit’s pundit. Speaking during the week which saw the rise and abrupt fall of the Super League, football was never more in need of a thoughtful voice and an inquiring mind. He works primarily for BBC Five Live in the UK but has always found various homes for his brand of inquisitive discussion over here too.

“I much prefer doing Irish media than UK media,” he says. “I was on BBC this morning (Monday) and I knew from the off what the line they wanted out of me was. They wanted a straight-up, black-or-white answer on, ‘How can you support Chelsea when Chelsea are part of this thing that will destroy football?’ They wanted it very simple, very binary, nothing complex.

“And I was going, ‘Well, it doesn’t really matter what I think, the thing we need to be doing here is to try and understand the situation because it has a lot of depth and a lot of complexity to it.’ I tried to explain this on breakfast TV and they just wanted simple, simple answers. And that bores me senseless. Binary arguments, I just have no time for them.

“Whereas I have always found - and this genuinely isn’t blowing smoke - that when I go on Irish TV or Irish radio or talk to any Irish newspapers, I would have to do far more preparation. When I started doing Off The Ball back when the Second Captains lads were doing it, you try going on there unprepared - good luck to you. You won’t survive. And I love that.”

This is the accidental footballer, then. Still plugging away at a game he never really cared for, still DJing on the side if and when he can. The last new music he bought was by Galway band New Dad, by the by. “There’s a bit of My Bloody Valentine in them,” he says, admiringly.

“I think what I was trying to do was this,” is his nutshell of the book. “We’ve heard a lot and read a lot of accounts presenting themselves as an insider's view of football. Mine is trying to be an outsider’s view from the inside, if that makes any sense. It’s a wee bit of a different viewpoint. Because for a lot of the time that I was in football, I was looking around me going, ‘You lot are weird, man. Your life is weird.’”

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