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The making of Pat Nevin

Pat Nevin has always been a man apart, as a footballer who loved the arts and a tricky winger with a phenomenal appetite for the hard graft of defending. Now one of the most respected pundits, he recalls his early journey from Easterhouse to Stamford Bridge.


This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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Colin did a team talk and said, “There are two cliques in this team. There’s you boys and you boys. Actually, there are three – there’s Pat as well.
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he must be the only footballer in the world to have asked his manager to substitute him before the end of a pre-season fixture so he could get to a Cocteau Twins concert.

Pat Nevin is telling the tale of the night the great Jock Stein decided to test his mettle. It was early 1985 and Nevin had been making waves in his debut season in the First Division with Chelsea. His creative powers had earned him the Player of the Year award at Stamford Bridge the previous spring, but the spotlight was burning with extra intensity on Nevin for something else: his offbeat off-field interests.

Here was a footballer who dressed like a student, went to the ballet and wrote record reviews for NME at a time most of his peers – to judge by the old Shoot! magazine Q&As – seemed to be listening to Phil Collins, Lionel Richie and Diana Ross. In contemporary photos Nevin – with pale, elfin features and big, New Wave hair – resembles an early prototype for a Tim Burton anti-hero. He was a little bit different. An oddity.

Stein – manager of Celtic’s 1967 European Cup-winning team and now in charge of the Scotland national side – wished to find out more and chose an Under-21 fixture in Spain as the occasion to do just that.

Nevin takes up the story: ‘I was wearing a beret and into my weird music and very different from the norm. Jock didn’t know me, so we played in this game and half-time came. The manager, Andy Roxburgh, was about to start his team talk when the door opens and Jock walks in. He walks past everybody and stands right in front of me and gives me the whole works. This is Jock, a godlike character, and he is calling me a selfish, ignorant, arrogant, little you-know-what and I just got battered with it.

‘He then walked out and smashed the door and the whole place was silent. Nobody even wanted to speak to me because it was like the Pope telling you you’re an arse. I thought, “I’ll show him,” and I went out and absolutely worked my socks off. I came off at the end and I needed a wee bit of oxygen.

‘On the coach afterwards, Jock walks up, ruffles my hair and goes, “Brilliant, wee man – from start to finish.” Then it dawns on you – he sees this unusual person and wants to know if you’re strong enough to stand up to him because he is thinking of putting you in the first team. And I did. I showed him.’

It is a terrific anecdote and Nevin tells it well, his sentences an infectious stream of colour and detail. It is easy to see why he is not short of work as a media pundit. If any Everton player from the 80s was going to end up as a regular on Radio 4’s Today programme – and he meets me fresh from a visit to Broadcasting House – the smart money back then would have been on the politically conscious, intellectually curious, indie-music-loving Nevin.

During his Everton days, his favourite haunt in Liverpool was Probe, the independent record store, and it comes as no surprise when Nevin reveals that his first memory of arriving at the club in 1988 is of the music playing on Colin Harvey’s car stereo on their way from Manchester airport.

‘We’re driving along and music is on in the car and it’s the Cure,’ Nevin remembers. ‘“Oh, good song,” I said. The next song comes on and it’s New Order. I thought, “I like this guy a lot.”’ It was one of the compilation tapes that Harvey’s daughters would make for their dad. ‘You can smell honesty a mile away and that’s Colin,’ he adds.

Unfortunately, Nevin’s ensuing Everton career was not as successful as either man would have wished. He was 24 when he arrived in summer 1988, and a seemingly key component in Harvey’s rebuilding plans, along with fellow new boys Tony Cottee, Stuart McCall and Neil McDonald. He scored the goal that got Everton to that season’s FA Cup final but his four years at the club would see Harvey’s efforts hampered by a divided dressing room, and his own ambitions hindered by a manager who did not rate him, Howard Kendall.

When he left for Tranmere Rovers in 1992, his top-flight career was over at just 28.

The enduring perception of Nevin as a man apart makes him a doubly intriguing subject. He cites Harvey’s words in the aftermath of a much-publicised fight between Martin Keown and Kevin Sheedy on one particularly damaging squad night out. ‘Colin did a team talk and said, “There are two cliques in this team. There’s you boys and you boys. Actually, there are three – there’s Pat as well.”’

Nevin had known the same already at Chelsea. His team-mates took to calling him ‘Weirdo’ because of his appearance and interest in the arts. ‘That was one of my nicknames but they didn’t turn on me,’ he remembers. ‘They found it funny. They tried to wind me up mercilessly and got confused when it had no effect whatsoever.’

The sight of him listening to his Walkman and reading NME on the team bus led to the popular prank of ripping up the magazine. Nevin got round that by keeping a second copy hidden elsewhere. ‘I did have a secret compartment in my bag. It became a running joke that my NME would get trashed but I always had an NME to find out what was going on.’

Nevin’s love of music and technology meant he would put together videos to play for his team-mates on their bus journeys to matches, as he explains: ‘I learned how to make videos and copied The Tube and Top of the Pops if there was a decent thing on. I’d splice them together and put on three or four songs that I could put up with and that I knew they’d put up with too, and then try to sneak in a track by the Fall as well. Then I started making videos, which would be music with a comedy bit, and they’d watch it on the coach.’

There is a thread here to the present and his work as a football analyst. Nevin describes enthusiastically a BBC website feature he produced using a programme that allowed him to appear on a CGI Goodison Park, walking among the players as he explained where Everton were going right and wrong.

Expanding on his work today, he says: ‘Away from football, I don’t have a massive competitive instinct. I do a lot of TV and radio, but do I want to be a top man on the telly? No, it’d be a nightmare because you can’t walk about the streets. The technical stuff is much more interesting – it’s creative, it’s informative, it’s educational.’

It is at Stamford Bridge, his other home as a top-flight footballer, that we meet. Outside Fulham Broadway station, a man in red trousers offers a sartorial signpost that this is southwest London. Just beyond the Britannia Gate that marks the entrance to the stadium, the faces of Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, Thibaut Courtois and Cesc Fàbregas smile out from a Delta Airlines billboard ad: ‘From Stamford Bridge to Brooklyn Bridge’ is the tagline.

The Stamford Bridge of today seems a world apart from the ground that Nevin knew. Then there were National Front thugs in the Shed End and a chairman, Ken Bates, who erected a twelve-foot electric perimeter fence to deter the hooligans (albeit it was never switched on, thanks to the intervention of Greater London Council).

But for Nevin, a twenty-year-old college student from Glasgow, this was the place where he made his name in English football. ‘It wasn’t a great stadium but there were twenty thousand people turning up and a good atmosphere around here. They’d been a big club and I was aware of that. And for some reason the fans just took to me.’

They still do, judging by the middle-aged woman who refers to him as ‘Lege’ as we pass her on our way to the Chelsea Health Club and Spa at the back of the stadium.

Nevin, a regular visitor for his work with the club’s TV channel, was even applauded once by the Chelsea crowd after scoring a goal here for Everton in April 1990. ‘I rounded the keeper and rolled it in and the Shed did applaud. I often get asked, “Who is it, Chelsea or Everton?” and the truth is there was a real peak for me at Chelsea – Player of the Year twice – and it just never quite happened at Everton, I would argue for a variety of reasons.

‘But I have a lot of time for both of them. With Moyesie [David Moyes] being there such a long time and Robbie [Martinez] being an old mate of mine at Motherwell, I still have loads of feeling for Everton.’

A recent encounter in the Goodison car park with the famously musically erudite Leighton Baines only added another layer of affection. ‘He was somebody I’d feel comfortable spending time with, talking about music and anything else,’ says Nevin, though he stresses that he and Baines are not the only two music obsessives to have worn Everton blue. ‘Barry Horne very much had a hinterland and he was probably the closest thing to me musically. He is stunningly knowledgeable about indie music.’

Today, at 52, the wispy-haired Nevin has the air of an academic with his frameless spectacles, cotton jacket and Breton top. It takes no leap of the imagination to picture him holding spellbound a lecture hall full of students. Indeed, of his five siblings, two became headteachers and another a college lecturer. ‘There are six of us and I’m the only one without a degree so I’m the family failure,’ he smiles.

In truth, Nevin’s success as a footballer was something of a family effort. A labourer on the railways, his late father Patrick was the man whose study of Celtic’s training techniques led to his son gaining the skills to build a professional career. ‘He missed less than a handful of games in my career and considering I played over eight hundred, that is damn good going for a labouring man,’ he begins warmly. ‘He was a bit of a hero for me.’

On Saturdays, Patrick Nevin Sr took his son to Parkhead to watch Celtic play and then spent the rest of the week putting him through the same drills as Jock Stein’s players. ‘My dad and all my family were Celtic supporters so we’d go to the games but, more than that, my dad trained me every day. He’d get home from work and I had to be ready with my boots to go out and work on skills – specific things he’d learned by going down and watching Celtic train. Celtic’s manager was Jock Stein, who was not a bad guy to copy. He’d watch people like [winger] Jimmy Johnstone and their techniques and pass them on to me so by seven or eight, I was playing at Under-11 level. Even though I was small, it wasn’t a problem.

‘If anyone knows about the Wiel Coerver methods, they’re almost a modernised version of what my dad was doing,’ he adds of Coerver, the former Dutch footballer, who in the 1970s devised a skills-based teaching method for boys aged five and upwards to instil in them a mastery of the ball. In Nevin’s case it was an hour or more a day and he was ‘very much the only boy in the neighbourhood doing it’.

‘My dad read a lot of books about coaching,’ he continues. ‘He’d been a boxer but he wanted to know as much about the technical side as possible. He gave that opportunity to all the family – I was the one who stuck with it.

‘My dad might have had it in his mind for me to play professionally but I just loved the skill side of it. We lived in a tenement in a rough part of Easterhouse. Fortunately there was a school round the back so we could go there and train. I never played on grass until I was eleven or twelve. It was always on black ash. So when you played on grass, it was incredibly easy.’

Nevin refers to the writer and thinker Malcolm Gladwell and his 10,000-hours concept as he highlights the impact of that daily programme on his development. ‘If you do anything for ten thousand hours you’ll become incredibly proficient. I was well into ten thousand hours very early on. What my dad was trying to teach me was to always keep my head up – I’d get sticks in the ground and dribble around them, trying to never look at the ball.

‘After a while you never look at the ball and it’s a massive advantage. I thought everyone could do that and as the years went by I thought, “Actually, everyone’s looking at the ball!” What a waste that is when you don’t need to, when you know exactly where it is. It gave me this big advantage and was what made me good enough to become a professional footballer actually – getting that base.’

Easterhouse, where Nevin grew up, was the site of a huge post-war housing scheme on the eastern side of Glasgow, built in response to the problem of urban overcrowding. Its name became synonymous with deprivation. ‘It was known as the roughest housing district in western Europe,’ reflects Nevin, but he remembers a happy childhood. ‘My parents were interested in keeping us healthy – they were fanatical walkers and never had a car. But education was absolutely paramount so homework always had to be done.’

It was a Catholic upbringing too and Nevin retains what he describes as a ‘Labour, Christian attitude’. He expands: ‘Although it was Catholic, for us it was more morality and a socialist morality, and we were all indoctrinated with that as well – just caring for your fellow man. And I didn’t need a religion for that. I thought you could be moral without it. I think you can be a nice person. It wasn’t drummed into us by my mum and dad. They just led by example, as fabulously honest people.’

His father’s footballing lessons began to pay off as Nevin signed for Celtic Boys’ Club, having shone in an Under-12s competition. ‘I’d played for Blue Stars Under-12s, a street league team from the rough East End of Glasgow. We were a bunch of kids from ten streets and we won the Scottish Cup. In the semi-finals we beat Celtic Boys’ Club and the Celtic manager walked in afterwards, congratulated everybody, then walked over to me and said, “You’re playing for us next year.”

‘I went to the boys’ club and from there Celtic Football Club saw that Dundee United were going to sign me and so they signed me up as a schoolboy. I trained with them but still had no concept of making it as a footballer – I was too busy enjoying it. I was a centre-forward or a number ten. I never played in a wide area. I was scoring around eighty goals a season and playing for representative teams, but this was all secondary because I was studying for my O levels and my Highers, which were much more important.’

In November 1979 Nevin received the award for the boys’ club’s Under-15 Player of the Year. The previous summer he had travelled with them to the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. On the same trip was an older, flame-haired defender called David Moyes. ‘Moyesie was the captain of the team above me. I played for the composite team sometimes – I would be the youngest player and Moyesie the captain.’

The leadership skills – and intensity – of the future Everton manager were already quite evident. ‘There was one game that always jumps out,’ says Nevin. ‘We were playing Eastercraigs one day and they were our big rivals and they basically kicked the shit out of me. I scored a couple of goals and we were winning at half-time but as I walked off, Moyesie came over and grabbed me and said, “Don’t you ever duck out of a tackle.” I said, “He was going to kill me, he wasn’t going for the ball.” “Never show a weakness,” he replied. I was thinking, “You’re just the captain,” but he was right.’

For Nevin, it was the perfect place to learn and at the heart of it were the teachings of Jock Stein. ‘Everything about how you should play and the way of life, it came from Jock and filtered straight down to the boys’ club, and we tried to be exactly the same. Everyone who worked under Jock learned something, so if you see Jock you understand Sir Alex [Ferguson]. If you know Jock, you see David Moyes. The line is obvious for those of us who were inside it.’

Nevin, despite his player-of-the-year accolade, was not inside it for much longer. At sixteen, he was released by Celtic. ‘They said, “You’re not good enough, you’re too small.” I think my dad was eternally a bit disappointed but he never said anything.’ For Nevin, his interest in education ensured a soft landing. He simply focused on his Scottish Highers. ‘English was my favourite. I was a fanatical reader.’ The sight of a book squeezed into his jacket pocket suggests nothing has changed. ‘I had my favourite authors. At school they were classics but quite heavy – Dostoevsky, French stuff as well. I am going backwards because I have got lighter and lighter. P.G. Wodehouse is my hero now.

‘I was fortunate I had good English teachers because then you get interested in the theatre. For my family and people I knew, being interested in theatre and the arts generally was normal. And then you become a footballer and people go, “He’s weird,” and I think, “No, I’m not, I’m normal.”’

At the same time as Nevin embarked on a BA in Commerce at Glasgow College of Technology, he also began a double life as a footballer. He was playing for a local club, Gartcosh United, when Craig Brown, later manager of Scotland, invited him to play for Clyde, then stationed in Scottish football’s third tier. ‘We played a game against his Clyde side and he said, “Do you want to come and play for us?” I said, “I study, sorry.” He said, “Well, do it part-time and we’ll give you a couple of quid.”

‘It was only Clyde but we kept on getting more successful. We won the league. I did the first and second year of the degree while I was at Clyde. It was easy because Clyde only trained twice a week in the evenings and I was a student – I wasn’t doing medicine so it was very doable.’ In his first season with Clyde, 1981/82, he scored thirteen goals to help the club achieve promotion as champions, his efforts also earning him the Scottish Professional Players’ Association’s Second Division Player of the Year award.

At this stage, Nevin was still trying to keep the two sides of his life separate but his on-field success made this increasingly difficult – not least after his impact at the 1982 European Under-18 Championship.

‘I had a girlfriend at the time,’ he recalls, ‘and we were mad for each other but I didn’t really want her to know I played football.’ Before departing for Finland with the Scotland squad he told her he needed to get his head down to prepare for exams. ‘I made the mistake of getting Player of the Tournament and winning the tournament,’ he continues. ‘We were on the back pages of all the papers. When we came back she just went, “Studying? You should have mentioned it.”’

It was not just his girlfriend learning of the feats of Clyde’s little Merlin. ‘After the first season with Clyde, Chelsea came in and tried to buy me. I thought, “I’ll lose the fun of it,” so I turned them down.’ There was interest too from Billy McNeill, the manager of Celtic. Nevin’s career might have unfolded differently had McNeill actually stayed in his seat until the end of one particular game when scouting Nevin.

‘For my style of player, plastic pitches and icy pitches don’t work, as you can’t turn. That night we were playing at Alloa and it was rock-hard and I was having a total stinker. Billy McNeill had come to see me to buy me for Celtic, which I’d have loved, but I couldn’t kick a ball or run with it until with ten minutes to go when I got the ball and started to dribble.

‘There’s no video of it but I did go through a lot of players and the keeper and somebody on the line and then tapped it in. I jogged back and then had a wee look up to Billy McNeill, but he’d gone. It was a wee moment of fate. Lots of Clyde fans still talk about it. Celtic came in for me twice during my career and it never happened. At the same time, the players at Clyde were a good bunch and I learned very quickly.’

It helped that, with his parallel life as a student, he felt no pressure. ‘Celtic releasing me made me realise that I could just do this for fun and I immediately improved. I was never nervous in my life about it. What I promised myself when I finally did leave Clyde to come down here was to not forget that. Chelsea bought me for ninety-five grand, which was buttons at the time, and I still did not think at all I’d be a professional footballer. I was taking a two-year sabbatical.’

The Chelsea Football Club that Nevin arrived at in 1983 was quite unlike today’s rouble-driven powerhouse. In those days there was no health club serving the lemon and polenta, and chocolate and beetroot cakes which Nevin and I are now tucking into.

Then Stamford Bridge had a three-tier East Stand, built in the 1970s, but the rest of the ground was a ramshackle place with a greyhound track circling the pitch and cars parked behind the goal on a match day. Moreover, Chelsea were a Second Division side.

When Nevin turned up at Euston station, he threatened to take a train straight back to Glasgow on hearing the club wanted to put him in digs with the youth-team players. ‘I had to go and find a place to rent. It was a fleapit in Earls Court and was costing me a hundred quid a week. I was earning one hundred and eighty quid a week, I was paying tax and had twenty quid a week to live on. I just got lucky that I was in the team right away and the fans took to me immediately.

‘If I had to guess why, it was because I was playing well but I worked my socks off. I was an incredibly hard-working player as well as the other stuff and you had to have both of them together. With people who have a bit of skill and flounce about, they can take you or leave you sometimes. But if you put that effort in and you have skill on top, you’ve got a chance. My time down here, from the start, was just about a dream. The fans were great and I had a manager who rated me and utterly trusted me.’

This was John Neal, a softy-spoken County Durham man with a shrewd football brain and an appreciation of flair, who had previously managed Wrexham and Middlesbrough. ‘Very early on in the first season he does the team talk and at the end of it says, “Give the ball to Pat and you’ll win.” John Neal basically said to me, “Play on the right wing but do what you want because I know you’ll defend when you need to.” He trusted me absolutely so I was able to go and find pockets and play in the hole when it was vacated.’

Prior to Nevin’s arrival, Chelsea had narrowly escaped relegation. Now he was at the creative heart of a team with a new-look spine, comprising goalkeeper Eddie Niedzwiecki, centre-back Joe McLaughlin, midfielder Nigel Spackman and striker Kerry Dixon. Dixon would score 28 league goals as they won promotion, but Nevin, his chief supplier, was the club’s Player of the Season. Of their partnership, Nevin says: ‘I completely understood what he wanted, where he liked to score. He was lightning-quick. He wasn’t a great footballer but his finishing was phenomenal. There was a good understanding and we liked each other but we had nothing in common – he was listening to his Wham! records.’

Nevin’s reputation for doing things differently was quickly noted by the press. ‘I was asked by the Sun what I liked doing after one of my first games and I said, “Going to gigs.” From that the NME did an article on me and suddenly I was Mr Post-Punk Footballer. But I was just normal.’

He may say that but he must be the only footballer in the world to have asked his manager to substitute him before the end of a pre-season fixture so he could get to a Cocteau Twins concert.

These extra-curricular interests led to him befriending John Peel, the BBC radio DJ and champion of alternative music. ‘If I had a hero it was John and it was one of the real joys of my life to have had John as a friend. On Wednesday nights I would be on the Peel Show. Now and again he’d say, “We’ve got the famous footballer in tonight.”’

It was music too that forged a bond between Nevin and Paul Canoville, Chelsea’s first black player. ‘I’d go and make tapes for him,’ says Nevin, who provided rather more than compilation cassettes for his team-mate, defending Canoville publicly after he became a target for abuse from a section of the club’s supporters.

At the time Stamford Bridge was a magnet for right-wing extremists; Canoville had bananas thrown at him on his debut against Crystal Palace and it was after another fixture against Palace, on 14 April 1984, that Nevin spoke out. ‘I scored the winner and I walked off just fuming,’ he recalls. ‘Paul had been booed on by a bunch of our fans and I came out afterwards and said, “I’m not talking about the game, I’m disgusted with these people who pretend to be Chelsea fans. There’s no place for that.”

‘There were a lot of hooligans at the time and I’ve no time for the retrospectives people are doing about the casual movement now. It had a very negative effect, particularly on the careers of players and on fans who couldn’t travel because of the dangers. They were thugs and they ruined people’s lives and I think they used places like this. Chelsea is not in any way a racist club. Everton is not a racist club. These people wouldn’t even go into the games half the time, they’d go for the ruck.’

The Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, was unhappy with Nevin’s stance. ‘The chairman got me in and said, “What the hell do you think you’re doing, saying things against our fans? It’s not your fight.” I said, “Yes it is, of course it’s my fight. I play for this club.” The next week I walked out with Paul and they sang his name, which was great.’

It was not just Bates who confronted Nevin, who says he received letters from the National Front. ‘I wrote back and said, “I’ve read the leaflets and I don’t agree with you.” I also met somebody who purported to be NF in a hairdresser’s on King’s Road. He was shaven-headed and he wasn’t very pleased with me. I had to talk my way out of it.’

Nevin’s campaigning continued after he became an Everton player. Six months before his arrival on Merseyside, a banana was thrown at Liverpool’s John Barnes during the FA Cup fifth-round derby at Goodison Park. Nevin was involved with Barnes and Steve Mungall of Tranmere Rovers in the subsequent Merseyside Against Racism campaign that followed. As chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association from 1993–97, he did more of the same and these efforts led, in 2012, to his receiving an honorary degree from the University of Abertay.

Amid all this, Nevin never lost focus on his football. After morning training with the Chelsea squad, he would do extra work at Stamford Bridge in the afternoons on ‘the technical stuff my dad had taught me’, sometimes with a full-back from the youth team. Nevin would also go jogging in the evenings and his passion for running endures – these days he takes to the hills near his home in the Scottish Borders.

Colin Harvey remembered Nevin doing much the same during his Everton days – ‘He wasn’t like a professional footballer but he was very professional,’ he told me – and this work ethic reaped rich rewards during his first season in the old First Division, 1984/85, when Chelsea finished sixth.

One high point of their campaign was a 4–3 victory at Everton on the Saturday before Christmas. In what proved Everton’s last defeat until the following May, Welsh striker Gordon Davies hit a hat-trick and Nevin provided two assists. The Observer newspaper, in its match report, lauded his ‘magical dribbling’ and described how ‘the little man [. . .] had four men going four ways when he delivered the ball to [Colin] Pates for the third goal’.

Nevin remembers little of that first visit to Goodison Park but a match he does recall is a 4–1 home win over Manchester City a month earlier when he took a penalty described by an indignant-sounding Barry Davies, commentating for the BBC, as ‘the worst penalty I’ve ever seen at this level of football’. Taking just one step forward, Nevin rolled the ball at a snail’s pace straight at City’s Alex Williams. ‘I got fined that day by the manager for missing a penalty – not for missing the penalty but for laughing as I was walking back afterwards.’

Looking back, Nevin had reason to play with a smile on his face. ‘For two years in a row we came sixth and we scored a bunch of goals and were exciting to watch. It could have grown into something big but John Neal got ill and then the magic was broken a little bit. The team broke up quite quickly afterwards.’

Chelsea’s relegation in 1988 was the cue for Nevin to depart. He had a choice of Everton or Paris Saint-Germain. Nevin was on holiday in Corfu with Annabel, his future wife, when a call came through to the hotel from his flatmate back in London. ‘My friend Peter told me, “Colin Harvey has been on and says Everton want to sign you.” “OK, tell him we’ll sign.” I said to Annabel, “It’s Everton.” She asked me if I was sure about saying no to Paris. I said, “Why would I go to Paris? That’s about lifestyle, not about football and you can’t turn down the football.”

Here We Go: Everton In The 1980s: The Players’ Stories by Simon Hart.

Published by deCoubertin Books (£18.9)

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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