Football: Nevin thrives on the pleasure motive: Phil Shaw on the entertainer who crossed the Mersey and is revelling in the freedom of Prenton Park

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The Independent Online
FOR one so well versed in the winger's art of sidestepping challenges, Pat Nevin is refreshingly ready to tackle awkward questions head on. Ask him why a member of the Scotland squad for Wednesday's World Cup qualifier against Portugal is playing for unfashionable Tranmere Rovers and he replies: 'Because no one else wanted me.'

No one in this country, maybe, despite an enquiry from Newcastle, the runaway First Division leaders whom Tranmere visit today. The North-east appealed to the Everton misfit - 'It's closer to where I want to live long-term, and they're a big club' - but nothing transpired. So in mid-summer he was left with what some might see as Hobson's choice: Tranmere or Turkey.

Galatasaray, of Istanbul, had seen Nevin on video. Like Tranmere, who took him on loan last season, they were willing to meet Howard Kendall's knock-down price of pounds 250,000. Curiously, although he eventually crossed the Mersey, Nevin ascribes his decision to the symbolic lure of another river.

The story starts after his return from Sweden, where he came on in two of Scotland's three European Championship matches. Galatasaray invited the 29-year-old Glaswegian, his wife and baby son over, and their arrival at the airport made front-page news - heady stuff for an entertainer craving a stage after a 'wasted year' at Goodison Park.

'I met the club president to discuss my salary, a car and a flat,' Nevin recalled. 'He was pressuring me to sign there and then, whereas I wanted to go home and think about it. We were staying in a hotel with a beautiful view, and he hit me with this line: 'All you have to do is look over the Bosporus and you will know'. But when I got back I rang to say I wasn't going to sign.'

A triumph of mind over patter, it seemed, but the Turks' top man was undaunted. 'He told me they'd double the money, make the car a BMW and the flat a house. I replied that when I'd looked over the Clyde, I knew I couldn't be so far from home.' Seemingly immune to Caledonian corn, the president came back once more. 'He said 'OK then, commute' - and he meant it] I felt disappointed because they were so keen.'

There are no regrets now. The incandescent enthusiasm Nevin first brought to English football nine years ago with Chelsea is being reciprocated with interest at Prenton Park. He has scored four goals in the last six matches, made many more for John Aldridge and helped Tranmere to fifth place in the Football League, the highest in their history.

'I feel unbelievably positive about Tranmere. I actually feel 19 again, doing things I haven't done for years. That's not a dig at Everton. It's just that I've got the freedom to do what I like, and I'm getting an incredibly positive attitude from the manager, my team-mates and the supporters. For a player like me, that works wonders.'

Speculation last year linked him with Celtic, where he used to study Jimmy Johnstone's dribbling technique from the terraces. 'I'm holding no torches for them,' Nevin said. 'The other night, at a meeting of the Prenton Pups (junior fans) I was asked: 'Who would you most like to play for?' I answered 'Tranmere'.

'I won't pretend I didn't want to play in the Premier League, but now that I'm here I'm enjoying it greatly. The concept of dropping down a division hurts more than actually doing it. There's no time to think 'I wish it was Maine Road or Stamford Bridge'. And there are some good places to play - like Newcastle.'

Such high-profile matches can only enhance Nevin's chances of adding to his 14 caps. Andy Roxburgh, the Scotland coach, had warned that it would be more difficult to pick him if he joined Tranmere. Yet he was there in Switzerland last month and he is likely to be involved again at Ibrox next week.

'I know about Tranmere's image,' Nevin said, 'but the problems are in the minds of people like the Scottish journalists who asked me what division we were in. If they came and saw us they'd think: 'This team can play'. It's exciting football, with two wingers, and we make loads of chances.' Nevin's desire is self-evident; he maintains he has never lost it, even at Everton. But Kendall, inheriting him as a pounds 925,000 Colin Harvey buy, made it clear he did not rate a player who had scored five goals in 13 matches prior to his return.

'I wasted my 28th year, when I should have been at my peak,' Nevin said. 'I was feeling brilliant but I never got a game. If I was on the bench I warmed up for 90 minutes to show I wanted to get on. I worked myself into the ground in every training session. I know now it didn't matter what I did, but I had to do it.'

The notion of Nevin the dedicated, super-fit professional may seem at odds with his image as a token 'intelligent footballer' who knows his ERM from his REM, visits art galleries, reads books and espouses radical causes. In his very first interview, as a Clyde part-timer doing a degree in Commerce, he said there was more to life than football. Ten years on, he is unrepentant.

'That article came to the attention of Jock Stein (then national manager). Andy Roxburgh, who was my coach with the youth team, told me: 'Jock's furious. You cannae say that. It's not what the punters want to hear'. Bill Shankly said football was more important than life or death, but I'm not of that breed.'

Critics argue that Nevin would be a better player if he was. He feels they miss the point. 'Once you've grasped that you can have more than one dimension to your life, you're not constantly living in fear of failure. A happy player is a better and more confident player.

'A lot of people play through fear. I don't, and I'm convinced the 1970 Brazilians didn't either. I play my best through positive things - confidence, relaxation, pleasure - and it helps to be aware that football isn't everything.' Relaxation? Pleasure? Shankly and Stein must be spinning in their graves. And St James' Park, packed and passionate, may not be the place today to press the argument that football is not everything.

(Photograph omitted)

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