The Accidental Footballer by Pat Nevin review – a heroic outsider

In the 1980s, Pat Nevin was referred to as a “weirdo” by his teammates at Chelsea. Slight, good-looking and fond of wearing a leather jacket and ripped jeans, he was sometimes mistaken for Johnny Marr. His favourite writer was Albert Camus and he read Anton Chekhov on match-day coaches up to Newcastle. He was a mesmerising winger, but when an NME journalist described him as “the first post-punk footballer”, it was the word “footballer” against which he chafed; he saw the game as an activity rather than an identity. In In Ma Head, Son! (1997), a book-length collaboration with psychologist George Sik he published towards the end of his career, he worried about becoming an ex-player: “It’s a bit like people who continually go on about the war. They can’t stop talking about it. It was their finest hour.”

Nevin would go on to be a respected writer and broadcaster, but his career – not least his articulacy and ambivalence about it – still possess a mystique that makes his memoir The Accidental Footballer a pleasure to read. His childhood was especially formative. He grew up in an eight-person, three-bedroom tenement flat in Easterhouse, Glasgow, a working-class area whose rough-hewn character comes across in his memory of a boy’s match that had to be stopped on several occasions “when gangs of maybe fifty lads chased each other back and forth across the pitch; they were carrying baseball bats, golf clubs and the odd sword”. Egged on by his father who volunteered as a local youth coach, he was able to do 10,000 keepy-ups by the age of eight.

Nevin’s parents were socialists and Catholics. (The latter, he believes, stopped his father, who worked for British Rail for many decades, from getting a promotion.) His hatred of sectarianism informed his politics, not only as a teenager – his bedroom walls featured posters of Celtic winger Jimmy Johnstone and South African activist Steve Biko – but also his later stand against racism.In one example, he gave a post-match interview in which he spoke fearlessly of his disgust for the treatment meted out by Chelsea’s hooligan contingent to the club’s black player, Paul Canoville. His religion, he suggests, shaped his belief in the importance of the team rather than individuals. He and his siblings never swore, used “the best English we could”, and were educated to be “apart”, though not “above”, the “madness” they grew up in.

Nevin joined Chelsea in 1983, heading down to London at the same time as another gifted Glaswegian – “Champagne” Charlie Nicholas. Why champagne? The ex-Celtic Arsenal striker developed a fondness for mullets and leather trousers, gravitated to Tramp and Stringfellows, and was the subject of red-top kiss-and-tells from celebrities such as Dollar’s Thereza Bazar. His career quickly stalled. Nevin, by contrast, attended plays at the Royal Court, Herzog retrospectives on the South Bank, ballet performances at Covent Garden. He appeared on fine art programmes alongside Maggi Hambling and George Melly. He was a guest on the terrace of the South Bank building on the final night of the Greater London Council.

Independent music was his real passion. He wrote a column called Hooknotes for the Chelsea club newspaper, the better to champion the likes of This Mortal Coil. After a game against Manchester United he visited the Hacienda rather than return to the capital with his teammates. He befriended The Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly, who took him to see Morrissey. (They had a kickabout in his garden.) He had a cameo in a video starring Ted Chippington and We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It. For all the goals he scored and player of the year awards he won, he seems to have been at his happiest when helping out with the paperwork for his hero John Peel’s radio show.

Nevin’s quiet charisma, his anti-commercial ethos, his belief that a love of football and left-field music could co-exist made him a proto-influencer. He was something of a hero for a generation of young football fans – the kind who thought it possible to be into Dave Haslam’s Debris and spikily intelligent football fanzines such as The Absolute Game and When Saturday Comes. Of these publications, Nevin judiciously comments: “It is hard to know how important they were in saving the game, but those who tell you it was down to Sky TV and the Premier League for changing the atmosphere are way off the mark.”

The ban on English teams playing in Europe after the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985 ensured Nevin would never play in Europe. His transfer from Everton to Tranmere in 1992 meant he missed out on the riches of the Premier League era. Money was never an obsession though: he had started out part-time at Clyde so that he could continue his BA at Glasgow Tech, received wages of £180 at Chelsea (£100 of which went on the rent for his ground-floor bedsit in Earl’s Court), and did without an agent for most of his career.

It is hard to imagine Nevin would be comfortable with the marketing and brand management that surrounds today’s players. He’s happy, though, that they don’t have to splash around on muddy or waterlogged pitches, can rely on referees to protect them from kneecapping defenders, and don’t, as he once did, play two games in two days – and seven in 15. He’s far from unhappy that some of the paedophiles at his childhood clubs have been exposed. It should go without saying that he would hate the idea that the 1980s represented his finest hour. Still, The Accidental Footballer, so modest and self-effacing, so decently socialist, evokes the national game in a period of transition, to which he himself contributed with style and with soul.

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