Nevin rolls back the Chelsea years

My peak years as a Chelsea fan overlapped with Pat Nevin’s stay at Stamford Bridge. The player now says ‘it was a brilliant time for me’. It was for me too.

By Sam Phipps

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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QPR were just under two miles from my family home, Chelsea just under three, but it was always Chelsea. I opted for them from the age of seven (full home kit with white stripes and small ‘7’ down the shorts, big ‘7’on the back of the shirt, white socks).

The first time I met Pat Nevin, on a freezing weekday morning near Kensington High Street in January 1987, it was more like a star-struck ambush. I spotted him on the other side of the road, striding in a long dark overcoat, and crossed over to shake his hand. “Hi Pat,” I said idiotically, and introduced myself as a friend of Jason, who was then the closest friend of my younger brother Lucian. Jason trained with the Chelsea youth side, which gave him huge kudos in the area. He talked a lot about Nevin, and in glowing terms – the person as much as the player.

“Good to meet you. How’s Jason?” The only other words I recall from that brief, dizzy encounter are: “Aye, you cannae train in this”, as he gestured to the frozen streets. I like to imagine he was using the bonus free time to head up to Record & Tape Exchange, half a mile away in Notting Hill Gate. For weeks afterwards I told anyone who would listen – and those who would rather not, like most fellow students or my parents, with zero interest in football – that I’d met Pat Nevin.

Thirty one years later, on a Monday morning in late April, Nevin walks into a cafe near the top of Leith Walk and we talk at length about his glorious spell at Chelsea. This time it’s planned. “I’m a bit zonked – I need coffee,” he says, and insists on buying the round, complete with some pastries. “Take what you like.” Well might he need coffee because on the Saturday night after punditry duties on Hibs v Celtic he flew down to London to DJ in Dalston until 3am, then worked at the FA Cup semi-final between Chelsea and Southampton later that day. Here he is next morning, having just driven into Edinburgh from his home in the Borders, and in a few days he will be off to Munich to cover Bayern v Real Madrid. These days he darts between cities like he once darted between defenders.

Nevin’s time at Stamford Bridge overlapped with my peak years as a Chelsea fan. His skills were exhilarating and his workrate was phenomenal – everyone knows about these – but what lingers in the mind just as much is the spirit he played with, the fearless creativity. Yes, he made countless goals and scored a good few but better still, he seemed to feel no pressure. It’s as if his deft control and self-belief on the pitch mirrored his sense of balance and perspective off it. He clearly didn’t need footballing success for his own contentment but he did crave creative freedom. And he got it, in the beginning. That first season at Stamford Bridge brought a lot of contentment to many people, and not only because Chelsea went up as Second Division champions. It was also about the contrast with the previous four years.

How heartening to have Nevin confirm three decades later that he was enjoying it so much. “It was a brilliant time for me. It was a lovely, happy, fabulous time. Creatively, it was great and off the field I also loved it in London. Most of my friends were musicians, dancers… Fiona Chadwick, who was then principal with the Royal Ballet Company, was a good friend.”

Like many Chelsea fans (or ex-Chelsea fans, as I would now have to class myself) one of my favourite Nevin moments was neither a goal nor an assist but probably the greatest not-quite-goal I have ever seen. A dance and a half. It was during the 4-0 demolition of Newcastle United in November 1983, soon after he’d turned 20 and had only been in the team a few months. He picked up the ball on the edge of his own area and buzzed all over the place, beating six or seven players, some more than once, ball sometimes close to his feet, sometimes tapped forward or sideways deceptively then retrieved with ease. I think but cannot be sure it included at least one nutmeg. In the end he could not quite beat the keeper but nobody cared. It was a defiant, joyous and almost transcendent sequence. People still talk about it but what Nevin tells me today makes it even better.

In Issue 1 of Nutmeg, Nevin revealed how his late father, a labourer on the railways who drilled him from an early age in skills from the school of Jock Stein, would get up at 5am and take the train down from Glasgow for almost every game, usually leaving five minutes before the end to make the last train back from Euston.

Now Nevin says: “We had an agreement, or I had an agreement, that I would go on one mad mazy run every game to say ‘Hi’. That was my way of saying hello. It wasn’t to score a goal or do anything like that, it was to say ‘Hi, Dad’. Because he taught me all that dribbling stuff and the methodology behind it.”

Of course Chelsea’s manager John Neal, who had signed him from Clyde for £95,000 that summer, was all for this kind of thing too. Up to a point. “I would have these discussions with him, I’d say: I like winning – it’s good, I’ll try very hard – but you’ve got to let me do what I do as well. ‘Yeah go for it but don’t overdo it’. And I’d say but what’s overdoing it? And he was usually OK with it but we came to an understanding: ‘If you’re ever 3-0 up go and do your tricks, do whatever you like.’ So that day we beat them [Newcastle] 4-0 and Johnny Bumstead scored the third and then I just had a ball. But that run you mentioned was before that. I think we were only 2-0 up.” In other words, he wasn’t yet even officially off the leash.

Chelsea sealed top spot that April with a 5-0 hammering of Leeds United in glorious sunshine, with Paul Canoville among the scorers (more about him later). I watched from The Shed with my brother. Jason was there too, wearing a long-sleeved blue shirt that he claimed was given to him by Ray Wilkins. (Jason would go on to do a spot of modelling – we ribbed him for having the gap between his front teeth filled. His chiselled features beamed out from billboards and TV cosmetics ads, and his huge face once took me by surprise at Rome railway station.)

It’s odd to think Nevin came close to leaving the club after just one sensational season. “I was seriously considering going back home after that first year. I was enjoying it so much but always saw it as a sabbatical from studying. I was still just a student at heart so all I wanted to do was see gigs and play football.” What almost gave him the excuse to head back to Glasgow was Chelsea chairman Ken Bates and his faux reluctance to offer Nevin a decent contract, despite his vote as fans’ player of the season.

“I had a word with Mickey Droy and a couple of the others and they told me what to ask for. I was on £180 a week, which after rent of £100 and tax of £60 was £20 a week.” But win bonuses of £200 a week or so were frequent and made all the difference.

Anyway, there he was, alone with the chairman. “It was a classic CJ moment. I’m Reggie Perrin and he’s up there – I could hardly see him behind his huge desk. There was everything except a fart pillow underneath me…” Nevin handed Bates a piece of paper with his salary request. “He looked at it, scrunched it up, put it in the bin, stood up, walked out, jumped into his Rolls Royce and drove away.

“What he didn’t understand is: he thought I was this unusual, strange educated kid from Glasgow. Also I am a rough scruff from Easterhouse. I did what anybody else from Easterhouse would do in that situation – I rummaged through his drawers and found all the contracts. I copied them up and calculated the mean, median and modal averages that night and went back the next day.” (Remember, Nevin’s college degree was in commerce.)

“And he said have you thought any more about that and I said yes, a lot more (hee hee) and I told him the amount and he said how dare you and I said it’s only the average. And he looked at me and said: ‘How do you know?’ I told him and he said: ‘Brilliant, it’s yours.’ Ken and I always got on really well after that.”

Next season came a fabled game, away to Sheffield Wednesday in a League Cup quarter final replay. With the Blues losing three nil, Luc and Jason bailed at half-time (I wasn’t there at all). At the station they heard that Chelsea were turning it round, Canoville and Nevin both starring. They dashed back to Hillsborough but couldn’t get in. Outside they heard one roar as Chelsea went 4-3 up and another in the last minute as Doug Rougvie gave away a penalty. Chelsea won the second replay.

Three more years followed at the club before Nevin left for Everton, exactly 30 years ago this summer [See Simon Hart’s article on his Everton days in Nutmeg Issue 1]. His last match was the second leg play-off against Middlesbrough that sent Chelsea back down to the second division. The atmosphere at Stamford Bridge that day was dire, with loud and horrendous abuse hurled at Middlesbrough’s two black players.

For Nevin, the joy of the first few seasons had already soured. Not only had Neal – “with his specific talent and abilities and calm wisdom” – left the helm at the end of 1984/85 because of illness but his assistant Ian McNeill was also sidelined as coach. (As well as scouting Kerry Dixon and Nevin, McNeill found follow Scots Joe McLaughlin, Gordon Durie and Steve Clarke). “They brought in a new coach who was the antithesis of everything I like about football. He was a kind of sergeant major, who just wanted the ball thumped up the field. He said to me once at the start of my last season: ‘If you take any more than two touches at a time before smashing it into the box you’ll be substituted.’ And I said…. bye.” It took a while but he was indeed on his way.

Nowadays, his links with Chelsea are as strong as ever. As well as writing for the club website, he does a lot for Chelsea TV. They are his clear favourites in England “though I still have a lot of time for Everton and Tranmere Rovers,” he says. (In Scotland, Hibs have replaced Celtic as his number one, and his 27-year-old son goes to every game at Easter Road. “The first time I went there as a fan, within minutes of taking my seat I was chatting about Iggy Pop and Captain Beefheart with people around me. I knew I was in the right place!”).

QPR were just under two miles from my family home, Chelsea just under three, but it was always Chelsea. I opted for them from the age of seven (full home kit with white stripes and small ‘7’ down the shorts, big ‘7’on the back of the shirt, white socks). That was only a year after their 1970 FA Cup win. But for a long time they were just a name to me, a concept whose only other physical manifestation was an Esso team poster on my bedroom wall. I never even saw them on TV until I was about 12 because Match of the Day was well past my bedtime, never mind going to a game.

My favourite player back then was another Scot, Charlie Cooke, though I never remotely saw him play either. It was on the strength of his moustache and the sound of his name. Also he wore No.7, as would Nevin. (Lately Cooke has spoken of his regrets about that team’s underachievement via hard drinking). In fact that poster was full of wonderful names: the Peters, Bonetti and Osgood, John Hollins, John Dempsey, Eddie McCreadie, Alan Hudson, Ron Harris…

By the 1979/80 season, when I finally got to see them in reality, Chelsea had a faded glamour and a well-documented hooligan problem. They were newly relegated, for the second time in four years. The Shed was a misnomer since the roof only covered about half the terracing, while the away end was entirely open to the elements. As for the futuristic East Stand, it almost bankrupted the club. Over the next few years National Front skinheads would sell their wares outside the ground and sporadic chants of Sieg Heil were not uncommon inside. It was a nasty sideshow and you would somehow pretend it was not happening. I never felt at risk in the Shed myself but the colour of my skin probably helped. As it was, the away end was often the scene of invasions and brawling, with mounted police galloping along the touchline. Chants of “allo, Chelsea aggro, allo” would give way to more nuanced refrains such as: “You’re gonna get your fucking head kicked in!” or: “Boot wrapped round your head, you get a boot wrapped round your head!” It mostly felt like tribal bravado, not without a strange comedy. A happier, more harmonious sound was Liquidator, the 1969 ska instrumental by the Harry J Allstars, which boomed around the ground before kickoff.

If Nevin and the supercharged David Speedie were the standout Scots, several others left their mark on me at Stamford Bridge. Steve Archibald, that pale, loping assassin, excelled in a 3-2 FA Cup quarter-final loss in 1982, poaching the equaliser for Spurs. We’d had all half time to dream of victory against a top flight side after Mike Fillery’s 30-yard freekick.

There was Frank McAvennie’s half volley as West Ham crushed Chelsea 4-0 in March 1986. Until then the First Division title had looked possible. “McAwennie you wanker!” someone shouted, in admiration as much as contempt.

A few weeks later came Kenny Dalglish’s winner to clinch the 1986 title as player-manager – a sweet volley with the outside of the right foot from the edge of the area. His team went on to secure the Double. Two days later I was back for more punishment, and the home debut of a puppyish Durie, in a 5-1 drubbing by Watford in front of barely 12,000.

Time, distance and a certain oligarch all loosened the bonds between Chelsea and me. I came to back underdogs against them because the cash gulf grew too wide. It was gradual alienation rather than principled rejection. I still love watching football (mostly on TV) in an utterly fickle way.

In a recent article on the Chelsea website Nevin referred to “players with a conscience” always giving their utmost – otherwise it’s a form of cheating the fans. As a player he certainly followed his conscience, and not just in terms of effort. His famous support for Paul Canoville, Chelsea’s first black player, after ‘fans’ booed him coming onto the pitch at Crystal Palace, remains an enduring act of integrity. But to Nevin it came naturally. “We became great friends. We both loved music and were street kids. I’m often seen as political but it’s more of a Glasgow student thing – I wouldn’t bring it to my work unless you bring it to my work – then I’ll argue back and stand my ground.” So instead of talking about his own match-winning goal, Nevin would only tell journalists how disgusted he was at Canoville’s treatment.

“The manager said ‘it’s not your fight’ and I said ‘Yeah it is, it’s all our fights… nobody is speaking about it [racism], I’ve been down here nearly a year, I’m not hearing managers speak about it, players speaking about it’… The next game we walked out together, we made sure Kerry [Dixon] and me were either side of Paul and the fans called Paul’s name and I thought, yeah, we can make a difference.”

The anti-racism movement in football has grown hugely since then, though Nevin deflects personal credit for his own efforts down the years. “It doesn’t matter who’s doing it, who started it, just that it’s happening.” But he is also under no illusions about some players learning to hide their racist attitudes rather than changing them.

Nevin always felt like an outsider himself but one entirely at ease. As well as his well known NME, literary and generally artistic leanings, he says he has never had a beer in his life, “though I’ve always liked wine”.

“I was acutely aware they had no idea how to take me. I hope it wasn’t arrogance but I had confidence in my position, who I was, what I thought and what I believed in.

“So they could call me weird but I don’t care. Call me gay – I’m not gay but I don’t mind because I’m not homophobic. It was much harder for people like Graham le Saux, who wasn’t a streetwise kid. I’d say, Graham you’re standing on this massive mound of moral high ground and the minute you do anything like that [retaliate to goading by fans or players] you jump down to their level.”

Also there were too many “top geezers” around, not only Canners [Canoville] but others like Keith Jones, Colin Pates, John Bumstead. “We got on really well, shared a sense of humour. Still do.”

Nevin sums up his level-headedness. “It’s the same if they write anything negative about a player’s character. A: They’re probably wrong and B: So what? The person they’re describing is a kind of third person who has nothing to do with you. And when they build you up and say you’re wonderful – you’re just kicking a ball.” He laughs. “Get it right – just kicking a ball. You can’t get too carried away with that.”

Say what you like but Pat Nevin is still wonderful. 

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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