There’s a story halfway through Pat Nevin’s memoir that pretty much sums up the absurdity of it all. The stage is the player’s bar at Everton, shortly after arriving from Chelsea in 1988. Nevin is 25, well established in the game but known to be a little different from the average footballer. A little weird, actually. But bizarre people are also people.
A fan arrives and says he heard Nevin is in the opera. Nevin says he is and the fan asks if he would be interested in two tickets to the Pavarotti concert which will arrive in a few weeks. Nevin is stunned – even by the standards of football insidery privilege, Pavarotti tickets are absolute gold dust. He bites the guy’s arm and asks how the hell he is able to swing that.
“Oh,” said the fan, “I make the big houses of the rich in the north of Scotland. “
“Ah,” Nevin said, “What, like you’re a painter or a decorator or something and they’ll get the tickets for you?”
“No,” the guy said. “I mean, I ‘do’ the houses. I am a burglar. I spotted some on the fireplace in a place I was the other day and could go back and look for them for you if you want. . . “
This sort of thing seemed to happen to Nevin a bit. No, you understand, the big house flight deals exactly. Additionally, people who were slightly out of step in and around the game generally tended to locate him, as he was quite out of step himself. Or, as he likes to say, “I was the normal player, it was the rest of the football that was weird.”
His book is called The Accidental Footballer and the opening scene lets him go by Celtic’s Boys Club at the age of 16. his best to look downhearted in order to stay in the mood, only to give a big smile when he comes out. He never wanted to be a footballer and now, thanks to Celtic, he didn’t have to be. Happiness.
“I have an Irish passport,” Nevin says now, “and I know, as the Irish do, that kind of situation in a career in something isn’t that strange at all. I have also spoken to a lot of Irish players over the years and a lot of them never really wanted to be footballers. They might as well have been something else. It just happened.
“Obviously, when you have talent, that’s an option. And even more so in modern times, there is so much emphasis on being dedicated to it and having this will to rise to the top. But it wasn’t like that for me. I loved to play 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 college a lot more. “
Nevin’s heroes weren’t footballers, they were Joy Division and the Cocteau Twins and, most importantly, John Peel. One of the main reasons he joined Chelsea at the age of 20 was that London was where all the best concerts were, which meant that was where the legendary music DJ would be.
Some players spent their evenings in nightclubs and wine bars. Nevin played his in the BBC Radio One studio, sitting in the background during Peel’s music show, helping to record the tracks of the obscure bands he played to make sure they got their payouts. diffusion. He made a point of befriending Peel after coming down from Scotland and it was just another way to spend time with him.
Nevin was a formidable player, a jinky winger in the greatest of Scottish lore. He was Chelsea’s Player of the Year twice in his five seasons at Stamford Bridge and, although his time at Everton was not so successful, played for Scotland at € 92 and was a mainstay at Tranmere, Motherwell and Kilmarnock until his retirement in 2000. But his reputation beyond football was what made him interesting. He was a bit of a hipster before there were hipsters, forged his own brand of clever disagreement before anyone thought it was worth forging.
“I tend to look for small traits of difference in modern footballers. And they are there. They are just very well hidden these days. Football is a cross section of society. People thought I was unusual because I was in independent music, I was in serious literature, I was in the arts. But my answer has always been, “Yeah, but what percentage of the regular population is in all of these things?” I imagine this is a fairly small percentage.
“But above all, I always thought I was the normal person, it was football that was weird. They thought of me as weird but really, the football industry is really weird. That’s why I couldn’t wait to walk away from it and why I was never really sure I wanted to be a part of it.
“If there’s a reason for the book, it’s partly because I want people to know – especially young people who might stumble upon the book – I want them to know that there is nothing wrong with being a foreigner. You can still have a career as a footballer without having to integrate yourself. You don’t need to change. You can actually be that stranger and be comfortable with who you are.
That said, the navigation hasn’t always been smooth. Most of the people he met in the game didn’t quite get it. Outside of football his other sporting love was running and when he was not at the BBC he often retired from a night out to roam the streets of London. A car pulled up next to him one night and when the window rolled down, Chelsea manager John Hollins was yelling at him through the window.
“What the hell are you doing Pat?” Aren’t we training you hard enough to keep you in shape? “
“Well to be honest blunder, no, not really. Not for me in any case.
Hollins shook his head in disbelief and told him to get in the car to save his legs. Nevin got along well with Hollins – he hadn’t done it with all of his managers, but this one he loved. Even so, the feeling that he was not fully understood still hung in the air.
“I have had a lot of coaches and managers in my career. Most of them were rotten, to be completely honest. But not too much, even some of the big names. They just weren’t very good and they ended up in the wrong place. But if there was a good one, with very specific strengths, I spent quite a bit of time looking at them to see who they were and how they did it.
“I think the fact that I tried to be myself meant that I finally realized that I wasn’t playing football for a career. I did it because I liked it. There was this artistic and creative side that I loved. I had this weird dichotomy that I was probably also the hardest worker of any club I was in. And in the game, they never quite understood this dichotomy. And I knew they didn’t get it. I knew it scared the managers because they hadn’t seen a lot of it before.
“But to me you could absolutely love to win and absolutely love to work hard and do your best, while also being of the opinion that doing your best doesn’t really mean winning a trophy. It could be something more like self-actualization, being myself, letting the artistic side of my game go. Or it could be coming back at the end of it all and being able to say, ‘ Well I’ve done 20 years in the game – and it was fun! “ I always saw that as a better result than fighting, chasing, scratching and being horrible with people to get to the top.
He retired in 2000 and has since carved out a career as a think tank. In this week-to-week, the football world has never needed a thoughtful voice and an inquiring mind more. He primarily works for BBC Five Live in the UK, but has always found various hotbeds for his brand of curious chats here as well.
“I much prefer the Irish media to the British media,” he says. “I was at the BBC this morning (Monday) and I knew straight away what line they wanted from me. They wanted a straightforward answer, black or white, on: ‘How can you support Chelsea when Chelsea are part of this thing that will destroy football? They wanted it to be very simple, very binary, nothing complex.
“And I was like, ‘Well, whatever I think, the thing we have to do here is try to understand the situation because it has a lot of depth and a lot of complexity.’ I tried to explain this on the breakfast TV and they just wanted simple, straightforward answers. And that bothers me insane. Binary arguments, I just don’t have time for them.
“While I’ve always found – and it’s really not smoke – that when I go to Irish TV or Irish Radio or talk to Irish newspapers, I should do a lot more preparation. When I started doing Off The Ball back when the Second Captains was doing it, you try to go unprepared – good luck to you. You will not survive. And I love that.
It is therefore the accidental footballer. Always tapping into a game he never really liked, always a DJ on the side if and when he can. The last new music he bought was from the Galway band New Dad, by the by. “There’s a bit of My Bloody Valentine in them,” he says with awe.
“I think what I was trying to do was this,” is his summary of the book. “We’ve heard a lot and read a lot of stories that present themselves as an insider’s view of football. Mine is trying to be an inside outsider’s point of view, if that makes sense. It’s a tiny bit from a different point of view. Because most of the time that I was in football I would look around and say, ‘You are weird a lot, man. Your life is weird. ”