Pat Nevin on why he thinks the Tartan Army was truly born at Euro 92
As ever, fact gets in the way of such tales but there is often a kernel of truth behind them.
“It’s always been a bit hazy that one but I’ve been writing a book so I wanted to get all the details right,” Nevin told me from his home in Duns, Berwickshire. “There were two gigs on at the Royal Festival Hall that week and I was at both, Cocteau Twins and New Order, but I’ve worked out the one in question was New Order.”
There was no feigning injury involved – not something Nevin would do, quite the opposite, as we’ll learn later – or Stamford Bridge back then in 1984. The then 20-year-old was negotiating an extension to his Chelsea contract after signing for £95,000 from Clyde a year earlier and made a condition of signing that, given he was in full fitness, he was left out of the squad for a pre-season friendly at Brentford so he could go and see his beloved Manchester band live. After a, no doubt, raised eyebrow or two from ex-chairman Ken Bates it was agreed and the rest is, now documented, history.
“It was a great gig and I ended up becoming good mates with Hooky [legendary Joy Division and New Order bassist Peter Hook]. I did a DJ set with him in Glasgow. He’s a great guy but I was surprised he was the same height as me, five foot six-and-a-half, I always imagined him to be a big bear of a man.”
That leads Nevin on to another muso note. “I was once in the same bar as David Bowie and Mick Jagger.”
It’s the kind of statement that from another’s lips would leave you in jaw-dropped wonderment but with Nevin is taken as much for granted as it used to be Scotland’s appearances at major tournament finals.
“I’m not lying, I was taller than both of them. You see a lot of profiles on Bowie where it’s said he’s five foot nine, well I can tell you that’s bullshit.”
A chat with Nevin can weave you into circles a bit like the full-backs who had to deal with the classic Scottish winger in his pomp and we must remind ourselves that this is the Scotsman sports section, not the NME, who he was also interviewed by and shared a flat in London with the iconic weekly muso bible’s writer Adrian Thrills.
The subject is Euro 92, Nevin’s one and only taste of a major international tournament, and subject of this weekend’s BBC rewind nostalgia-fest. The Scots’ opener in Sweden 28 years ago against Netherlands, a 1-0 loss in Gothenburg to a late Dennis Bergkamp winner, was shown last night while the matches in Norrköping against Germany and CIS (aka collapsed Soviet Union) can be seen in full this evening and tomorrow.
A tough group. World champions and both the winners and runners-up of the previous Euro finals, which Scotland had never reached before in an eight-team format which showcased the cream of the European crop.
In times like this the ‘D’ word seems inappropriate but Nevin insists it wasn’t mentioned by the players back then either. “We never viewed at as a ‘group of death’,” he recalled. “We were relishing the prospect of having a go at these teams. As an international player that’s what you want.”
To get to such an elevated stage, Scotland had topped qualifying Group 2, which also contained Switzerland, Romania, Bulgaria and San Marino. The youthful Zoom generation of today will be amazed that we found out that manager Andy Roxburgh’s side had made Scottish football history through the mighty power of Ceefax (ask your parents, kids). With one group game left, Bulgaria had to deny Romania a win and when the “FT” flashed up next to the 1-1 score we were Sweden-bound.
Nevin didn’t feature in the first match against the Dutch, though Duncan Ferguson as the youngest player at the finals did off the bench. The then Everton winger did play substitute cameos in the final two group matches, though.
It marked a ten-year journey he had taken with Roxburgh and assistant Craig Brown since playing a surprise and pivotal role in Scotland’s only major international trophy win at any level when the Under-18s became European champions in 1982.
It leads to another classic Nevin story about how his then girlfriend found out he wasn’t “away studying” but in Finland by reading it on the back of a paper.
The young Scots sealed their semi-final spot with a 1-1 draw against the Netherlands, their scorer a certain Marco van Basten, by Euro 92 one of the world’s great stars and scorer of that unforgettable angle-defying strike in the final four years previous.
“You don’t remember that at the time. They’re all just lads you’re playing against,” said Nevin, who scored in the young Scots’ 3-1 final win over Czechoslovakia.
It was a triumph which would eventually propel the studious Roxburgh to climb a path to the national top job, which was to prove a rocky summit at times. These were the pre-Jose Mourinho-Arsene Wenger “show us your medals” days but Nevin said there was respect for the now 76-year-old.
“I was part-time at Clyde when I got picked for those under-18s in 1982 and Craig Brown was Clyde manager so I was fortunate, and Andy put faith in me too. A lot of the players had known these guys coming through the ages and respected them. They were innovative, had ideas.
“Some of them, like us having to be well turned out in blazer and tie, maybe didn’t go down well with an old punk like me at times! But other things, like bringing in Flower Of Scotland as the anthem instead of us just standing there to Scotland the Brave, and the engagement with the fans, I think was outstanding.
“Away from the games, that is the one thing I take from Sweden in 1992 – I think it was when the Tartan Army was truly born in the way we know it now.”
But back to the games we must go and Nevin finally getting a taste of the action as a 55th-minute sub for Gordon Durie, with Scotland unfortunate to be trailing Germany 2-0 down following goals from Karl-Heinz Riedle and Stefan Effenberg either side of half-time. That’s how it finished, which gives poor justice to what was a high-quality performance from Roxburgh’s men that day.
“Richard Gough and Gary McAllister were world-class in that game,” recalls Nevin. “It’s a frustrating one because if we could have just got one back I’m sure we could have got a result. We had the Germans rattled and on the back foot, which is not something you can say about a Germany team very often.
“I think we maybe held off and were a bit too cautious in the first half. It’s one of those eternal things in football where you look back and think ‘why couldn’t we have done that for the full 90 minutes’ because that was the game we needed to stay in the tournament and in that second half we were really going at them.”
Another glorious failure but Nevin insists there was no inferiority complex in those days. “We were good players, playing for big teams, a lot in England. In all my time playing for Scotland I never felt feared of anyone or in awe of anyone in the opposition. Maybe we were tactically found out sometimes but I remember coming on that day and I was up against Andreas Brehme, but in the last two games of the English season I’d been up against Kenny Sansom and Stuart Pearce, so I wasn’t going to be spooked by him.”
Brave but unequivocally out, without even that old Scottish chestnut of “mathematical possibility” to cling to, ahead of the final pool match.
At least Scotland would return to fight another day, the Commonwealth of Independent States wouldn’t. Qualifying as the USSR the team was a bridging gap ahead of the full break-up of the Soviet Union, including Rangers’ Ukrainians Alexei Mikhailichenko, Oleg Kuznetsov and future Ibrox favourite Andrei Kanchelskis.
“I’m not a big one for football memorabilia but I’ve still got the shirt from that one,” said Nevin of the rousing 3-0 win over a side who still had a shot at reaching the semi-finals.
“I think it was the fans that drove us on in that one. They had been so great all the way that we thought, we might be out, but we want to send them home with a win.”
Nevin came on in the 79th minute and won the penalty which McAllister slotted away to seal the rout.
“The truth is I had a broken ankle,” revealed Nevin. “Not a serious break but I’d picked something up in the last warm-up game in the USA, which I scored in and I think it sealed my place in the squad. I was fine but I knew I couldn’t kick the ball very far. I got the ball in their area and couldn’t see anyone close enough to pass to so just held it and in the end had my legs taken and it was a clear penalty.”
Prior to that, Paul McStay had got the Scots off to a flier with an early goal and then Brian McClair finally broke his international scoring duck. He would go on to add another in his final cap against Estonia a year later but two goals from 30 appearances pales with his prolific strike rates with Celtic, Manchester United and Motherwell.
Nevin says of the man we know as ‘Choccy’: “We in the squad used to call him ‘Brian No Flair’ which might sound like it’s disparaging but was totally complimentary and with respect. Brian is my best friend in football, so I’m maybe biased, but he was one of those guys who would show up and with no frills just do everything right, passes, positioning, crosses, and scoring when he got the chance.
“International football can be like that, you’re sometimes doing a slightly different role than you would for your club. Some players don’t like it and can’t take to it but Brian was a guy who would always be willing to do what was needed for his country.
“It’s hard to believe now but even Kenny Dalglish used to get stick for not being as good for Scotland as he was for his club!”
Nevin’s 28th cap came prior to the Euro 96 finals, for which he never made the squad, but that 1992 nostalgia is a brief interlude for a man very much about the moment and the future. He has been spending lockdown editing his memoir which is on the theme of how he became a professional footballer without ever really wanting to be one at first. It is certain to be a lot more interesting than your average ghost-written autobiography.
With so much time away from the Berwickshire home covering the game, which does have a hold of part if not all of his heart now, he has enjoyed extended time with the family. “Though they may disagree on that,” he laughs.
A regular on the BBC 5 Live airwaves he also works for Chelsea TV, writes a column for their website and contributes to home programme notes, plus a popular football podcast on BBC World Service. He is primed to return in some form for live action when the English Premier League gets up and running behind closed doors on 17 June.
After waxing lyrical about the way the Scottish fans made Sweden 92 so special he concedes that the lack of a crowd takes away a lot from the spectacle but said: “I think if it’s your team, you’re invested in that team, then you want to see them playing. As long as it’s safe to do so, which has to be the key thing, then we have to, all facets of life need to get going when safe because the economic ramifications otherwise are significant.”
Mental health issues too, which have been in focus of late. It is a problem which can strike anyone, from the millionaires of the Premier League down through the leagues to players uncertain about what lies ahead. Nevin co-wrote the book In Ma Head, Son with psychologist Dr George Sik which explored the troubles he endured when approaching the end of his playing career with Tranmere in the late 1990s.
His advice to any young footballers at this time is simple. “I’m not an authority and everyone is different,” said Nevin. “One thing I would say is that it’s important that you have something to fall back on. It can’t all be about football.
“You could break your leg tomorrow and that’s football gone. Whether it’s another career path to build for or just having other interests, things you are passionate about, and exploring them. As a footballer you train a few hours a day, that leaves a lot of hours that can be filled usefully.”
His old sparring partner Herr Brehme would call it hinterland, the land behind. There are few finer exponents of that in the world of football than Pat Nevin.
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.
With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.
Subscribe to scotsman.com and enjoy unlimited access to Scottish news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions now to sign up.
Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.