Pat Nevin sips his latte and looks puzzled. “This is the first interview I’ve done for many years. I don’t get asked and, to be honest, feel uncomfortable doing them. You’ll have to tell me why you want to speak to me because I don’t know. I haven’t got anything to sell.”
Where to begin? You were once - nothing finer in the whole wide world - a wee Scottish winger. You were the boy from the East End of Glasgow who kept a well-thumbed Dostoyevsky novella in the pocket of your “doomgloom” coat. The NME in its Christmas double-issue of 1983 acclaimed you as “the first post-punk footballer”. You were John Peel’s unofficial production assistant on his radio show. You were decidedly, determinedly, defiantly different. Now, as a pundit, you get asked: “Why does everyone in Scotland hate you?” And if we go back to where our afternoon together began, in the car park at Berwick railway station, you ran right over your man-bag.
Poor Pat. In the wake of Roberto Martinez’s sacking, everyone wants to speak to him. He was talking to a radio host on his phone when we met up, and further soundbites will be needed when he gets home to Duns later. Football chatter is relentless, isn’t it? The spew of words required of its best talkers, and many of its worst, is non-stop. In the car park he was blethering to California – Sincerity FM if I’m not mistaken – while stressing that, no, he hadn’t actually seen Martinez’s Everton lose dismally to Sunderland the previous evening as he was commentating on Norwich City’s match. No matter, Sincerity wanted his opinions and perspectives. We were walking together, him mouthing silent, bored yeah-yeahs for my amusement. Then he was half out of his Audi, half in it, the key poised over the ignition, and still they wanted more from this illustrious ex-Toffeeman. Finally he slammed his door in relief, apologised to your correspondent for the hold-up – and reversed with a horrible crunch.
“Oh no, I don’t want to think what was in that bag!” It had been an angsty day already for Nevin, 52, what with delays to the three trains required to transport him up from Suffolk – a kind of Clockwise with a little guy instead of that big, long drink of water, John Cleese. But, tiny trouper that he is, we pressed on to his choice of venue, a very Nevinesque arts centre, only to find it about to close, and so had to repair to the nearest Costa.
Why would I not want to meet him? This is a guy who’s always gone his own sweet way. Well, originally it was him and Brian McClair when those two were among the Scotland under-age tyros nurtured by Andy Roxburgh. On an away trip with the kids, reported in this paper by my esteemed former colleague Mike Aitken, Roxburgh was woken by a fearful din. He tracked it to the room shared by the apprentice patter-merchants. It was definitely a good-going punch-up, but how many were involved? Should he call hotel security? Nervously, Roxburgh opened the door and found Nevin and McClair sat on the floor, leaning against their beds and nodding furiously to a cassette-player blasting at top volume. Our man duly confirmed: “It’s The Men They Couldn’t Hang, boss – great, aren’t they?”
Some people have wanted to hang Pat Nevin recently. They form Sportscene’s highly critical audience and even include non-watchers such as Paul Hartley. The Dundee manager took exception to some Nevin remarks about the leaky Dens defence, dubbed Sportscene “the worst programme on television”, adding that pundit Pat’s views counted for very little as he’d never been a manager.
Quelle stooshie. “I got phoned up by journalists [adopts growly voice]: ‘What do you think of Paul?’ ‘Good manager!’ I said. ‘What do you think of what he says about you?’ ‘I don’t have a problem with it.’ ‘But aren’t you angry?’ ‘Not at all. Sorry!’
“Then I had to talk about this some more on Radio Scotland. I said that I respected all managers, which is true, as it’s a really tough gig. I wouldn’t want to do it. I’ve been asked to do it a few times but always said no. I don’t think I’ve got the right personality. But [as a pundit] I believe you can have a technical outlook on the game. If that annoys some people I’m sorry. Then this journalist, one of the biggest names, said: ‘Pat, why is it that everyone in Scotland hates you?’”
His answer was to say something about being a face on the telly, and that was sufficiently irritating to many. Today his response to the same inquiry is more like the quirky, quizzical, questing Pat we know and – some of us, anyway – love: “It’s one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked. Honestly. I rarely have to stop and think about the things I get asked – the answers are usually pretty obvious. That one was a bit different.”
As I say, that would describe Nevin himself. The sea (or pond or puddle) of Scottish football debate churns and heaves with many words but they are often the same words. When someone comes at the game with an approach that’s “a bit different”, he stands out. He can also confuse and unnerve. Hang on, though, it’s not as if he quotes the boy Dostoyevsky when analysing highlights of Killie vs Thistle or anything.
There’s a lot fans don’t like about Sportscene. The too-brief highlights, the too-few camera positions, the quality of the punditry in general, the Sunday slot, the lateness of the transmission when children are tucked up in bed – and the fact BBC Scotland didn’t exactly have to burst the bank to secure broadcast rights. Some of these issues have been addressed. A new deal pumps more money into the game and additional hardware will give us more angles on the action. Me, I like the Nevin angle.
He wears his footballing achievements lightly and doesn’t lord it over those who never played the game, a pet hate of mine. He’s not a blowhard or a pundit who shoots his mouth off for shock value. On England’s Match of the Day, the experts like to stretch out their muscular legs in tight breeks to confirm beyond any doubt that they were once footballers – on public transport this would be called “manspreading” and offend other commuters. On Sportscene, Nevin tucks his pins under his chair, feet barely touching the floor. Sometimes I wish he was more provocative and you know what, I could take a Dostoyevsky quotation from him on the show or, better still, a choice lyric from The Fall, but that would probably cause him more problems.
He shrugs when I bring up the criticisms of Sportscene, stressing he’s no great user of social media and so is unaware of the babble and in any case the show forms but a small part of any given week, usually different from the one before, and not all concerned with the round ball. A typically hectic and eclectic mash-up recently had him opining for radio about classical music, nipping over to Dublin for a football gig, then back to a Belle and Sebastian-organised festival in Somerset for a DJ set, spinning trusty post-punk favourites by the Associates, New Order and Josef K.
“I’m quite old-school BBC,” he says, “and for me, ‘entertain’ is near the bottom whereas ‘educate’ and ‘inform’ are right at the top. These of course were Lord John Reith’s three founding principles for the state broadcaster. “Whatever I’m doing, making a documentary on Jock Stein or commentating from Carrow Road, my mantra is always the same: to try to tell people something they might not know.
“I’m not interested in telling you something you definitely will know. I’m not going to massage someone’s ego for them. When I listen to a podcast or read a book it’s to be enlightened. The newspaper I read does not mirror my views; I buy one that doesn’t to learn something new. Maybe there’s a connection to John Peel here. He was always going: ‘What’s new? What’s new?’”
Where was he when Peel died? “Ah,” he says, “that was the last time I cried. No, tell a lie, my dad passed away a while back. But I remember being invited by John’s wife Sheila to his 65th birthday and telling my wife Annabel: ‘I’ve got to go.’ ‘You can’t,’ she said, ‘it’s the same weekend as that charity golf event you’ve been organising.’ ‘I’m going,’ I said. I flew down to Stansted where there was a car waiting to take me to Suffolk. I could only stay three hours before I had to turn around so I could be back in time for the 9am tee-off, but it was a lovely evening and John was the best I’d ever seen him, all the shyness and stammering had gone. I’m not mystical and I have no religion but something made me make that journey and I’m so glad I did. Three weeks later he’d gone.”
So where did Nevin get his inquiring mind? “From home. Dad was a great reader and both he and and my mum were keen that all six of us went from the East End, right through higher education. The rest made it but I didn’t finish my degree, the only failure.”
Football intervened for the Clyde starlet, who, in his very first interview, declared there was more to life than his chosen sport, incurring the displeasure of the same Jock Stein. Nevin’s horizons have always been VistaVision wide, although once they were as narrow as the close where he lived and he couldn’t have been happier. “That was where I learned what skill I possessed – Dad taught me everything. He made me play only with my bad foot, then with my eyes closed. By the age of nine I never had to look at the ball again.
“I played something like 800 games and he must have seen 750 of them, which was a great effort when I was at Chelsea, getting up at 4.30am in the morning. He had to miss the last five minutes to get the last train back to Glasgow Central but I always tried to make sure I did a little mazy run just for him. It was our code, my way of saying hello when I didn’t manage to see him before kick-off, and a thank you for teaching me the pure joy of football. He was a fabulous man.”
That old NME interview from his time at Stamford Bridge – when Nevin was large of coat and lustrous of hair, long before a “baldist” TV executive persuaded him to get a transplant - features the 20-year-old in a mild rant against Margaret Thatcher and namechecking Thomas Hardy and John Steinbeck. “Wow,” he says, perusing it again, “and the following week it would probably have been Albert Camus.” So – and this is allowed when you’re young – did he ever say or do anything for the sheer pretentiousness of it? No, he asserts, but then a snigger: when Charlie Nicholas suddenly got into U2, Nevin, who’d liked them previously, binned their records.
The same article mentions that when asked what he did for a living in those days he used to say “student” and notes with some astonishment that he’d never once visited the players’ bar at the Bridge. “There was a misconception about me. It was assumed I didn’t like people, which absolutely wasn’t the case. But I was a bit of a voyeur, I suppose. When I bump into some of my old team-mates we get on great, but we definitely had different histories, different interests. I liked music and plays and books and art-house films and thought I was the normal one!”
David Speedie, for instance, was the polar opposite. In his book In Ma’ Head, Son: The Footballer’s Mind Revealed, Nevin wrote about his fellow Scot’s “psychopathic abhorrence” for him. They had different political views for sure, the former CND campaigner says now, but on the park he dovetailed with Speedie better than anyone else in his career. The Chelsea boys installed at the bar nicknamed Nevin “Weirdo”, which he took as a compliment. Certainly his manager John Neal understood him, and allowed his little winger to listen to his music on headphones rather than the team-talk, as this would better prepare him for games – and was even prepared to sub him at half-time in a pre-season friendly so he could catch a Cocteau Twins gig. “It was such a rush I had to chuck my coat over my kit.”
Nevin refuses to diss the Dostoyevsky-disavowers among footballers. “A lot of them do have a hinterland but getting to it can be hard,” he says. Take Norman Whiteside, a team-mate when Nevin moved to Everton after Annabel convinced him he’d only been contemplating a switch to Paris Saint-Germain so he could hang around the Louvre. The big Irishman is “a very intelligent guy” but he was the worse for wear when Nevin and his new best Lancashire muso friend Vini Reilly, guitarist with the Durutti Column, were invited to Morrissey’s mansion, so, even though Whiteside was keen to tag along, the pair gave him the slip.
“That was a cool night. Morrissey was ultra-camp and perhaps a little thrown when I came over all gruff Glasgow and demanded: ‘Gie’s a tour.’ We saw the room with all his Oscar Wilde first editions, the room with the baby grand which he’d bought specially for Vini to play, but there was another one which he said was off-limits. Eventually he relented. I thought I might find a picture of Dorian Gray but the multi-gym was a surprise. Norman found his way to Moz’s place later, by the way. When he tried to climb over the garden wall I think the police were called.”
Nevin, he’s not too shy to admit, used to like prog-rockers Genesis. The conversion to Joy Division was sort of mirrored later by this boyhood Celtic fan’s transfer of allegiance to Hibernian. He did this for his son Simon who he’d initially taken to Celtic Park but Nevin was turned off by Old Firm sectarianism. Simon loved Easter Road straight away and is a fanatic. Some Celtic supporters gave Nevin a hard time for the switch, some Hibs fans were probably suspicious of it, and some might groan when he says that if the club don’t succeed in all their aims over the coming week it will still have been a great season.
But that’s Pat Nevin: different. “I don’t hate Celtic now,” he says, “and I don’t hate Hearts either. I don’t have hatred for anyone and that’s a massive statement, by the way. Listen, you can’t live your life worrying what people will think of you. You just try to be honest and whatever anyone thinks is kind of secondary to this: did I make my dad proud?”
Nevin’s true mantra is that there’s more to life than football, even the kind played by diminutive, quixotic wingmen.
It’s a little surprising, then, that he’s still thirled to it to this extent – didn’t he fancy a more artistic second-act for himself? He did, and he does. “There’s still time. I’ve written a play. Man, playwriting’s hard – almost as tough as poetry.” What, there are Pat Nevin poems? Better not let Paul Hartley read them.