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Interview: Pat Nevin, prince of football pundits

Published on 15 April 2013

IT'S not hard to take to Pat Nevin when he appears on Match of the Day 2.

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Subtle, articulate and insightful, he is by some distance one of its more engaging pundits. When Colin Murray recently asked him and Alan Shearer to say which of three goals had been the goal of the weekend, Nevin's distinction between the "best-looking" goal and the "best technical one" made you look at them afresh.

He has in his time campaigned against racism and sectarianism and in his punditry he can be outspoken – voicing, for example, his dismay with the Swansea ballboy who deliberately failed to return the ball to Chelsea's Eden Hazard. More recently, Scotland's initial nervousness in their 2-1 defeat by Wales prompted the thought-provoking observation, on Sportscene, that "fear spread like a virus through the team". Later, he made the point: "Is it not beginning to dawn on us that we might not actually be that good, and that might be the problem?"

Recalling, with quiet pride, how Arthur Montford once told him: "I like what you say. You tell us something we don't know," Nevin says: "I'm there for no other reason than to enlighten you on something, because of my 'expertise', that you might not have spotted. I'm bored senseless with talking about a goal that goes in: the cliches are obvious. But if I can tell you something that makes you think 'I never knew that', that's entirely the reason I do it. I don't want to sell myself. There's no celebrity culture around it. You do it for all those years and hope somebody notices."

Through his media work (including many years honing his observations and grasp of detail in Channel Five's now-ceased football coverage), his well-chronicled love of music, and sundry other activities, the 49-year-old Scot enjoys a high profile.

A fast, tricky winger in his prime, he played on both sides of the border and was capped 28 times for Scotland. He was once Motherwell's chief executive, is a past chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association and last year he received an Honorary Doctorate in Letters from Abertay University.

Nevin was born into a family of six in Glasgow's East End. His father Patrick worked for British Rail, his mother Mary ran the house. "My dad's a fantastically interesting chap. He was such an important person, as most parents are, but he trained me for an hour every day in skills and techniques. He'd leave the house at 6am and when he came home I'd have my boots on. My brothers did it as well, but I was the only one who kept doing it – until I was playing with football teams, and didn't have time for it. He coached teams, helped set up youth leagues in the East End, which were huge. I played in them for a couple of years before I went on to the more mainstream routes through football."

He played with the local Blue Star under-12 team which defied the odds to win the Scottish Cup for its age group. "We beat Celtic Boys' Club in the semi-finals and I scored four. Afterwards, their coach came into the dressing-room and said: 'You're playing for us next season'." After a year with them, he was poised to sign with Dundee United on a S-form, but a coach took the wind out of his sails by saying bluntly he couldn't kick the ball. "He restructured my kicking," Nevin admits, "and that guy, Walter Smith, went on to do quite well. -"

In time, Celtic snapped up Nevin but let him go when he was 16. He was studying at Glasgow Tech, now Glasgow Caledonian, when one Davie Skinner urged him to consider signing for Gartcosh United's under-18 team. He did well at Gartcosh then Craig Brown asked him to sign for Clyde. "I said no – I was happy studying, I wasn't aiming for a football career. So he (Brown) played the classic 'grant question'," which entailed asking how much his student grant was, and offering rather more.

Nevin played his first full 90 minutes for Clyde in November 1981 and scored in each of his next six games. One freezing February night in 1983, he entered club folklore with an astonishing goal at Alloa. "Sadly, nobody ever saw it – there were no TV cameras there. I beat about eight men, stopped it on the goal-line and passed it into the net. I was showing off to Celtic manager Billy McNeill, who had come to see me play. I looked up to see his reaction and he'd already gone."

He signed for Chelsea for £95,000 in 1983, and was part of the side that won the Second Division title. He was a firm favourite with the fans, who twice voted him Player of the Year. He moved to Everton, in 1988, for £925,000, and spent four years there, scoring 16 goals, including the winning goal in an FA Cup semi-final. His next club was Tranmere Rovers, where in 1992-93 he set a personal best of 16 goals. In 1997 he co-wrote a well-regarded book, In Ma Head, Son, about the psychology of footballers.

"In brutal honesty," he says now, "when you finish playing, you don't spend the rest of your career wishing you were still at Chelsea. You move on to your next club. After Chelsea I had a choice between Everton and Paris St Germain; I chose Everton, and gave my all there. After that, it was Tranmere or Galatasaray [in Turkey], another tricky choice.

"I loved Tranmere. It was the best football I've ever played. [But there] was an awareness that football had moved in a different direction, that there was just power and pace, which wasn't what I was looking for down there.

"I hated the Premiership for maybe the first 10 years. I thought it was rotten: just power and pace. I didn't see any good technique players outwith the ones that were brought in [from abroad], like Gianfranco Zola. We weren't producing any, and the ones we did produce, couldn't get a game. That's what football is like sometimes. Tranmere, on the other hand, were playing flamboyantly. I played more games for Scotland while there. It was weird not to be playing in the top level when you were playing the football of your life."

He finished his playing career back in Scotland. At Kilmarnock, he had the "happiest year of my career. I'd wanted to come back home – I had three or four chances to join Celtic, which never happened. I took a massive pay cut, but I wanted to play here." In the end, he left because "a promise that had been made wasn't adhered to". He joined Motherwell, a club where he later became chief executive. The owner, John Boyle, later placed the club in administration; by that time, however, Nevin, who was working without a contract, was already planning to leave, having decided he had taken the club as far as he could. "I thought, there's no bitterness here, it's business, that's the way it goes, but if that's the business, I'm not even vaguely interested in being involved in it, and so I stepped away."

Nevin, who lives in the Borders with his wife Annabel and their two children, Simon, 21, and 17-year-old Lucy, is much in demand as a freelance. Has there been a footballer with such a persuasively diverse range of skills and interests? He has made documentaries for BBC 5 Live. He engages in newspaper sports journalism, in football commentary and works for foreign companies. He recently presented an award at the Radio 2 Folk Awards. He has done occasional DJ stints with Colin Murray. He recently made an audio and video accompaniment for the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh.

At Chelsea, where the fans still revere him ("I suspect it was because I was a bloody hard worker, and they knew you were trying to entertain as well"), he writes a popular weekly column for the club's website.

And that's all without mentioning his love for Hibs – or his abiding passion for music, both live and recorded. He smiles as he describes how, a few nights before our interview, he went to see one of his favourites, Robin Guthrie, formerly of the Cocteau Twins, in Edinburgh.

"I didn't know the first three songs, but the guy next to me had the set-list. I said: 'Excuse me, mate, can I have a look at it, so that I can remember the songs?' I took a picture of it on my phone and handed it back, and only then did I realise who the guy was. All I could say to him was, 'I've got the last Rebus book you wrote -'"

As encounters with his readers go, Ian Rankin has probably had some unusual ones, but not too many during a concert with a former footballer.

pat nevin Football pundit

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