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On The Ball & Off To The Ballet: Pat Nevin's The Accidental Footballer
Richard Foster , May 22nd, 2021 07:58

The Accidental Footballer provides a self-portrait of one of British football's more singular personalities

What does Pat Nevin actually want from life? It seems everything that is decent, upright and truthful, including the fun of playing football, a sport which he represented his country at. But, and I quote, “being a footballer, living the typical footballer’s life, wasn’t. And I didn’t want anything spoiling my love of playing.” If only life were so simple as our earnest youthful dreams.

Nevin’s memoir, The Accidental Footballer, could be read as a moral tale. So moral, in fact that you could even cast Nevin (at a shot) as a Piers Plowman in the Fair Field of (Football) Folk, or Bunyan’s narrator in Pilgrim’s Progress, albeit warding off the evils of Ken Bates and Galataseray’s manic chairman. Or, more prosaically you could remember the line in the old Julian Cope song, ‘Trampolene’: “my splendid art / my sad profession” and envisage the tricky winger’s dilemma that way.

We are told that Pat Nevin has got his college exams to sit and a career in a decent profession to carve out. But football keeps getting in the way. And by the end (with the Premier League launching and all memories of football before 1992 sent to groan and sweat on Milton’s lake of fire alongside Satan and his fallen brethren) we see Nevin up to his neck in the game: as a senior, international pro and his club’s union rep. The ‘Epilogue’ goes on to mention his chairmanship of the PFA and his current position as a well respected football pundit on the BBC.

He never did sit those finals. It all reminds me of a placard held up to Glasgow Rangers and England’s centre half Terry Butcher by a Scotland fan, during a home international in the late 1980s: “Remember wheer yer breed’s buttered Terry!”

The structure of the book (each chapter headed by a favourite song title) also suggests a sort of Victorian penny instalment, warning children everywhere about “the perils of the reluctant footballer”. But did he really feel such an oddball? I’m not so sure, despite his preference for watching the ballet or Cocteau Twins over a bonding night out “on the lash with the lads”. Even a cursory reading shows that Nevin had the street smarts to hold his own and prosper in a very male, sometimes violent and socially conservative profession.

In fact, the classic characteristics of the legendary “football men” of Scotland’s Central Belt, such as hard work, dedication, ruthlessness and a fearless, often unbending principle, all find their shape in Pat Nevin, especially when we read about his early footballing life. He is another in a line of self-made Scottish working class lads, upstanding and proud of his roots and family. Though in Nevin’s case he would have been one of those laughing as Charles Atlas walked into town and I can’t imagine even cultured and intelligent men such as Sir Alex Fergusson being as public in their enjoyment of a night at the Royal Ballet.

Perhaps, with this socio-cultural framework steadfastly in place, he is using this memoir as an informal history lesson for those currently brought up to watch a game that has radically, irreversibly changed in the last thirty years. Whatever the motive, I don’t think I have read such an openly principled football memoir since Charles Buchan’s A Lifetime in Football, written some sixty years before. Something that Nevin is on the way to having.

What is a lifetime in football? And if such a thing can happen, how can it be wholly accidental? It’s worth examining the parallels between these two famous footballers and their memoirs. Both Buchan and Nevin ended up working in the media, and, though London born, Buchan was temperamentally a Scot (his parents were from Aberdeen). Both were skilful, clever inside forwards (though Nevin will be remembered by many – your reviewer included – as a graceful winger). Both were responsible players, happy to represent their teammates to the authorities and keen on improving the wider, technical, and social aspects of their profession, for the betterment of all. And, at times, the Buchanesque footballing themes of “they were tough in those days”, or “we played for the thrill of it all”, are hard to sidestep in The Accidental Footballer. In both books, too, the young players receive on-field tutorials from kindly old pros. But there the similarities end. Nevin’s impishness and alternative cultural proclivities are traits the Grenadier Guardsman Buchan would not have countenanced. Maybe he’d have seen Pat Nevin as a latter day, even more headstrong Alex James or Alan Morton.

It’s also worth noting that for all its openness and honesty, there are times where those qualities are not enough for this book, a fine one, to truly prosper. For example, I do find it a shame that some topics Nevin raises, especially the nagging thought that “if the British game’s come so far, where are the openly gay footballers”, maybe deserve a more forensic and forthright approach – especially from someone of Nevin’s moral and intellectual calibre. Now and again you suspect a smart skirting of issues such as this if only to protect a friend, moments where a smokescreen of generalisations or anecdotal diversions takes sway. Not that anything Nevin says is incorrect or disingenuous. It’s just a sense of disappointment the reader gets when realising that if it’s not someone as respected and as “sound” as Pat Nevin, then who better? Maybe that is an unfair projection.

Still, anyone who played organised football at any level and at any time in the 1980s will recognise the world Nevin describes, now happily kicked into parody by the likes of Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge. It’s all catalogued here to remember, ruefully: the complete mistrust of anything different, and the automatic branding of anything arty or delicate as something that would lead to a wholesale adoption of homosexuality in the team. Or the expectancy of getting boozed up as a weekly rite of passage and the constant presence of violence, sexism and racism. And, of course, the stupid, ball-cradling shorts and an unquestioning adherence to the sounds of Dire Straits. This stuff, despite Nevin’s best efforts, was always part of football and just playing for pleasure didn’t mean you could avoid it. It was often part of a wider cultural identity. Here I dip into my own 80s memories and quote a more robust, Terry Mac-tached teammate, who once berated me with “why don’t you stop being a fucking poof and join Thatcher’s revolution?”, after a Saturday morning parks game where I’d stupidly rocked up in a homemade Cocteau Twins t-shirt. Like Pat Nevin I was only playing for fun (fun!).

And I am delighted Nevin articulates well the widespread disgust most fans felt of the terrace violence. The pathetic overindulgence of pagga at the match, especially now, fed by moronic books and stupid films (ironically full of the sort of homoerotic undercurrents many involved would have – literally – run a mile from) does need calling out and Nevin pithily does just that.

Credit, too, to Nevin for not playing up the “bantz”, a veritable plague in the modern game. The vast majority of the anecdotes aren’t of the “essential stats” or “jumpers for goalposts” variety. I can’t imagine the likes of Robbie Savage rescuing stranded ballet dancers in an MG during the Poll Tax riots in London, for example. Or talking a reserve fullback into checking out the delights of Saddam-era downtown Baghdad. Humane, engaging and possessing a writer’s voice, Nevin’s pen portraits can be illuminating. His one of Chelsea and England fullback (and fellow arts lover) Graeme Le Saux, with his travails in a “lads’ world” is a highlight, and his sketches of Mo Johnstone, Neville Southall, Norman Whiteside, or the infuriating David Speedie lead one to believe that they could have been characters in an Anthony Powell novel.

If there is one quibble, it’s that Nevin really doesn’t go far enough at points like these. Or should maybe consider writing a fictional account. You are desperate to hear more, for Nevin to draw out these players’ characters over pages and pages rather than offering maddeningly short, but brilliant insights, such as of Everton’s legendary ‘keeper, Neville Southall. “The big man never drank. I asked him once why this was the case and the picture he painted was not far off the Marvel character Hulk when he is in a particularly foul mood.” In fact, Nevin sometimes writes in the same way as he played as a winger, scudding over the allotted space with a speed and now and again a flash of brilliance that may or may nor get a result. The author readily admits that The Accidental Footballer was written in a concentrated burst and as such it is noticeable when he feels like taking a breather. And the slightly abrupt ending does sound like he’s asking us to excuse his leave. Which is a big shame.

Regardless, many will enjoy this book just as an alternative football book written by someone who was equally at home squaring up to Kenny Wharton, watching Empires and Dance-era Simple Minds or crossing swords with George Melly on Channel Four’s “infamous” arts quiz, Gallery. It’s a really good book, in fact. Good enough to wish Pat Nevin had gone that little bit further.

The Accidental Footballer by Pat Nevin is published by Octopus Books