Pat Nevin: First Division or Joy Division?

Posted by in October's Magazine

Kick that football like you kick your wife’, wrote the poet Adrian Mitchell in World Cup Song (For The Scottish Team). It was a long time ago, and these words traduce the beautiful game, yet…

Football can be rancorous, ugly, and unthinking. It is liable to provoke passion, intolerance, hate even, and make you see red or green or whatever the colour of your team. But it ought to be breathtaking and it should be joyous and sometimes, just sometimes, it can be poetic too. Take the words that Hugh McIlvanney pinned like medals of valour on Greavsie and Best. Watch Barcelona tiki-taka their way to perfection. Hear Alan Green’s radio commentary come conniption when Beckham scores that free kick against Greece.



Poetic I say.
Patrick Kevin Michael Francis Nevin was one of those players who stirred the soul, like good poets do – a winger of velocity and verve who loved what he did and did what he loved. He was something else again. “Being a footballer is what I do. It’s not what I am,” he said. The music press called him the ‘first post-punk footballer’. He read books (Camus, the Russians, PG Wodehouse), he was mad about music (famously arranging to be subbed at half time during a Chelsea game so he could attend a Cocteau Twins gig), and he hung out with jazz raconteur George Melly.

Kirk Broadfoot he wasn’t.
The NME stuck him on its cover and he quickly became my favourite player. He was Scottish, he was cool, he was political, he didn’t sport a ‘tache, and he knew Morrissey. In short he was hero material – all 5 feet 6” of him. At least he was, right up until a year and a half ago, when I heard him being introduced on 5Live, to the sound of Sunshine on Leith, as a follower of the Cabbage and Ribs.

Pat was a Tim, if you like – and I do, he was Celtic daft, on their books as a boy and linked with joining the club in the early 90s. But neither my ears nor the words of that savant-less idiot Colin Murray deceived me. Nevin had gone native and my heart, as Craig and Charlie would have it, was broken. Was this the same Pat Nevin who in In Ma Head, Son – the book co-authored with psychologist Dr George Sik – slated Sik for transferring his love from Spurs to Man U?

In giving evidence to Holyrood’s Justice Committee just last month on offensive behaviour at football he explained why. Kind of. He’d taken his son to a game at Parkhead and heard one of those songs, which is to be deplored – but surely there’s such a thing as a moral framework at home, Pat? It had also been reported that he felt the Tic had become too corporate and the club no longer felt like home to him. A Judy Garland moment.

Sorrow sorrow sorrow sorrow.
“I have a season ticket at Hibernian for the pure love of their concept of the game,” he recently told The Guardian and, given the long-ball tactics of the Hibees this season, the concept may have to suffice. But, renegade or not, I know it’s what you’re like, not what you like. My affection for Nevin remains even if, I confess, a chunk of it has been battered, crushed, diced, bathed in acid, blown up, locked in a lead box, and buried at the bottom of the sea. Footy fans, peddlers of poetry included, don’t handle rejection so well.

You saw it/You claimed it/You touched it/You saved it.
Unquestionably a pundit of quality, Nevin gained Arthur Montford’s approval and he trounces the usual cliché mongers – the likes of Billy Dodds and Alan Shearer. He must also be the hardest working man in showbiz, spreading himself like an economy margarine across 5Live, Radio Shortbread, Sportscene, Channel 5, plus a weekly column for the Chelsea website. The rumour he’s to take over Desert Island Discs from Kirsty Young starts here.

Perhaps my perception of the man remains best informed by the memory of a skinny 20-something with a Johnny Marr mop top coming on for the last 10 minutes of a Home International at Wembley and shredding England. That he only played 28 times for Scotland was a scandal of tram-work proportions. And it may be that my disappointment at his club swapping and broadcasting omnipresence says as much of my own midlife musing, as I rewind to my past self watching this versifier of the wing swashing and buckling past that last defender and nicking the ball over the keeper.

Somehow though I keep thinking of that Flaubert story with Gustav boasting he could make love to a woman, smoke a cigar, and write a letter at the same time. I have a metaphorical notion – there must be an ointment for it – that the subject of this piece has denounced sex, given up smoking, and dedicated himself to composing daily missives to the ombudsman for shopping trolley efficiency. And there’s no poetry in squeaky wheels, Pat, no poetry at all.

– Rodger Evans

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