Pat Nevin had no intention of being a footballer. That might come as a surprise from one of Scotland’s favourite footballing sons with a 20-year career that took him from Clyde to Chelsea and the 1992 European Championships.
His teenage years were spent reading Dostoevsky and Gogol, he tells Jane Graham, with posters of African nationalist and socialist Steve Biko on his wall alongside Celtic winger Jimmy Johnstone. Football was just something he did for fun.
That would all change with a move to Chelsea, but his politics and his personal ideals would remain at his core. Nevin looks back in this week’s Letter To My Younger Self.
At 16 I was making big decisions about where I was going in life. There was a possibility of a professional football career and that was the expectation from a lot of people. But I had no intention of being a footballer whatsoever. I was quite an austere and earnest teenager, I read my Dostoevsky and my Gogol. My focus was on passing my exams so I could get into a degree course. I was also a fanatical music fan. I was a teenager just after punk happened, and there was an explosion of really interesting music and ideas in Glasgow. So I spent my time playing my LPs, going to a lot of gigs and playing a lot of football. But purely for the love of it, no other reason. I certainly wasn’t doing it to be famous.
I spent the first part of my childhood in Easterhouse [a Glasgow suburb once infamous for its gang, drug and alcohol problems], then we moved to Barlanark [about a mile away]. My mum and dad and six kids in a top-floor tenement flat. You hear a lot of stories about how dreadful it was in our part of the world. But A – if you grow up there you don’t know any different. And B – I loved it. They were honest people and you had the opportunity, if you wanted, to educate yourself. I was very fortunate, my parents were very, very good at backing us to do what we wanted to do.
I think there may be a political element to the way I played football
I tried very hard not to be a footballer and failed. Chelsea tried to buy me for an entire year and I kept saying no. I’d been playing with Clyde and that worked well because they were part time, so I could still do my degree. But at the end of that year I had a chance to go to the World Championships with Scotland, which meant missing my final exam. I worked out I could defer my exams, sign to Chelsea for two years, go to the World Championships and then go back and sit my exams. I thought, oh well, might as well give this football thing a try, just see where it goes. And blow me, if I wasn’t playing for Chelsea within a year.
I played football for the pure joy of it. I loved the creativity. Scoring feels great, I can’t deny that. But if I’ve beaten three players and then passed the ball to another player to make a beautiful goal, I don’t care. I think there may be a political element to the way I played football. Thinking about the people around you – your teammates, your friends, society, everyone. You’re part of a bigger thing. You do things out of love, never hatred or selfishness. That’s what my dad taught me, and it was just how we lived. I think that was a very Glasgow way of thinking. When I go to London and I’m at Chelsea, and I hear the racist chanting, I won’t just sit and listen to that and keep my head down. No, I come from Glasgow. I’m not having that. I grew up with [South African activist] Steve Biko on my wall as well as [former Celtic winger] Jimmy Johnstone.
My dad was a manual labourer for British Rail. But – and this surprises a lot of people – he hardly missed any games of my professional career. When you think about that – I played for Chelsea! How did he get to those games? He worked six days a week! Well, with home games he’d get a train from Glasgow Central at six in the morning, get over to Chelsea by about one o’clock – obviously I couldn’t see him because I was warming up – he’d watch the game, then he had to leave before the last five minutes to get the last train home. And I’d phone him the next day. But I had a way of saying hello. At least once in every single game. I would go on a big stupid crazy dribble. Because my dad had taught me how to dribble, he’d given me that technique. So in every game I’d go on this big stupid dribble that wouldn’t really go anywhere and it wasn’t to get a goal. It was just me saying, hi dad.
I’d rather live in a pokey wee flat with love than the biggest house in the world without it
I don’t remember our family ever saying we loved each other – that’s just not the culture – but you showed it in everything that you did. The way we spoke to each other, and treated each other, and were kind. I’m an extremely happy person, and I know I might not have felt that way if I hadn’t had that backing. My relationship with my dad was extraordinarily special right up until the day he died, aged 90. And I can only look back on his life with happiness. He taught me a lot of things as well as how to play football. He taught me how to treat people and to stand up for things that wouldn’t necessarily make me popular. And he taught me how to be a father. That’s the best thing he taught me.
What would surprise my teenage self about the life I’ve gone on to lead? Every single thing. Everything I was trying not to do ended up happening. My plan was never to get involved in this fame world. So what did I do? Became a professional footballer then went on to talk about football on the telly.
I think the younger me would be surprised at how lucky I feel. A lot of books right now are focused around adversity and sadness and all the things people have had to overcome. I’ve had my trials and tribulations but I’ve never had that worldview. In my late twenties my life did get a lot harder and I had particular challenges in my family and my career. But I still wouldn’t change anything because going through hard times, that’s how you find out who you really are. And what you value. People say, it’s alright for you in your big house in the Borders. But I’d rather live in a pokey wee flat with love than the biggest house in the world without it.
If I could go back and give myself some advice… well, there was that penalty against Portsmouth, I put it to the left and I should have put it to the right. Then there was the classic… 1986, I’m playing for Scotland against England at Wembley, Sir Alex [Ferguson] was the manager. We were 2-1 down and Terry Butcher, my erstwhile cousin, tackled me and I didn’t go down for the penalty. Sometimes I think, should I have dived? If you look at football today, everybody dives. I could never bring myself to do that. I managed to spend 850 games not doing that. But should I have dumped my morals just that once so that Scotland could get the draw? Who gave me the key to the country’s morals? After that I didn’t get chosen to go to the World Cup with Scotland. Would I rather go to the World Cup a cheat, or stay at home not a cheat? In the end, I chose the latter and I’m comfortable with that.
If I could have one last conversation with anyone… the obvious one is my dad but I actually had time to have all those conversations before he died. But I didn’t have them with my mum, who died many years before. I’d love to tell her I’ve been married for 30 years. I’d like to tell her that her grandson, who she worried about, has done well. And that I went on to have a daughter. Who is now a doctor, which, with our background, is just one below the Pope. And I’d say, you know that football business that you really, really didn’t want me to do – it turned out alright.
If I could go back and re-live any moment in my life… well, that’s easy. I had three very good mates in Glasgow, and one of their girlfriends, Julie, said, I’ve got a friend that you’ve not met yet, but you’re going to marry. And I said, don’t be stupid. I was already seeing a girl I was very keen on. Fast forward six months, I’d stopped seeing this other girl. I went to a party in the West End of Glasgow, and I saw this girl across the room, with eyes like chocolates drops; I thought she was the image of beauty. And Julie said, that’s the girl you’re going to marry. She just thought we were made for each other, and she says now that we’re “ridiculously sweet” together. I would love to go back to that moment because it was magical.
The Accidental Footballer by Pat Nevin is out now (Octopus, £20)