Football: The Monday Interview: Pat Nevin - Mind games of the thinking man's footballer

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From his days as a young man at Chelsea, when he was more interested in nuclear disarmament than night-clubs, Pat Nevin has never conformed to stereotype.

Now he has co-written a book - but it is a long way from the traditional ghost-written tome of player's reminiscences.

In the cult psychological drama series The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan railed against being dehumanised as No 6. "I am not a number," he protested, "I am a free man." Another resolutely independent Patrick, while more of a No 7, has a similar determination not to become a prisoner of his profession. "Being a footballer is what I do," declares Pat Nevin. "It isn't what I am."

Not all the managers for whom Nevin has played appreciated that kind of thinking, or indeed any thinking. Some preferred shell-suited sheep with their brains in their feet. Others actually seemed happier for their charges to be out looking to get laid or legless rather than going to the cinema or staying in to read.

So it is not difficult to imagine their reaction on learning that Nevin has written a book in collaboration with a psychologist, Dr George Sik. And you can almost hear the sniggers when they see that In Ma Head, Son* (geddit?) bears the sub-title "The footballer's mind revealed". But even the most hard-nosed cynic among them may find his eyebrows twitching as he reads how the Scottish winger struck up a rapport with Wayne Sleep.

Yes, the Wayne Sleep, ballet dancer, confidant of Princess Diana, champion of camp sensibility and antithesis of blokeishness. Now working for a London radio station, he was left with the task of interviewing Nevin after the sports programme's usual host called in sick.

"I had a publicist from our publishers with me and I saw her face drop," Nevin recalls. "She was thinking: `Oh god - ballet dancer and footballer, stuck together for half an hour'. Wayne hadn't had time to read the book and his knowledge of football was, um, ever so slightly limited."

Nevin mentioned that he had friends from his time with Chelsea who were principal dancers with the Royal Ballet. Common ground established, the pair began bantering like old pals. The book Nevin and Sik have produced is not only about football and sports psychology, but also the psychology of groups working together under pressure. Suddenly it transpired there were strong parallels between the worlds of the scything tackle and the frilly tutu.

"We talked about how the club and the manager are in many ways the same as the company and the leader. I told Wayne I'd discovered that footballers and dancers suffer the same type of damage - knee, ankle, muscle and stress injuries - and how people in both jobs are pressured into performing when not 100 per cent fit. If players don't play they can find themselves being got rid of; if they do, they can aggravate the problem.

"The same catch-22 operates in ballet, so Wayne immediately and instinctively understood what I was saying. I've been interviewed hundreds of times in my career and it can get boring because asked the same questions over and over. This was one of the most stimulating I've ever done."

Now 34 and playing for Kilmarnock, Nevin came to prominence when he began dancing through defences in Chelsea blue 14 years ago. Early media coverage focused on his support for nuclear disarmament (it was the time of Greenham Common), his enthusiasm for the dark music of Joy Division (he told one paper he liked Joy Davidson and still takes an impish pleasure in the fact that they printed it) and an oddball interest in culture.

To his public he was an alternative Eighties icon. To club-mates he was "Weirdo", a nickname he took as a compliment. "There was no snideness, it was all very up front and friendly. In truth I've always been a social chameleon, able to blend in with almost anybody, and not the social outcast some people assume."

He was, nonetheless, highly amused by a recent spoof tabloid exclusive in Viz, headlined: "Heartache of Soccer Eggheads: Swots Get Red Card From Plebby Pals", and laughs aloud as he quotes almost verbatim: "Pat first realised he might be intelligent when he began to question his musical preferences. `I'd always known I was different from other players. I'd never liked Phil Collins records... I kept buying them, thinking I'd come round, but I was living a lie'."

It should be said, incidentally, that the book is anything but po-faced. The reader will not encounter the usual re-living of games and goals - Nevin finds the autobiographical format "boring and limiting" - but will learn, for example, of David Speedie's "psychopathic abhorrence" for the jumped-up newcomer to Stamford Bridge. On going to play for Scotland, both were horrified to be room-mates; the Scottish Football Association had assumed they were great chums.

When Nevin arrived in London from his native Glasgow he was young, free and single (he is now married with two children). The world, to quote Arthur Daley, was his lobster. More importantly, he said, steering the conversation back to psychology, Chelsea had a manager who understood his mind.

"I had this strange dichotomy going on. I was very relaxed about whether I made a career in football yet I was also incredibly dedicated. John Neal recognised that because he knew I was coming back for extra work in the afternoons. When he saw me with headphones on when he was giving the team-talk, listening to New Order or whatever, he let me do it.

"He knew that if I ran out all tense, I wasn't likely to play well. Yet if I cruised out in a happy, confident way, I probably would. For my type of player, is it better to go out relaxed like Ruud Gullit or all stiff- legged so I can't control the ball?

"Once, I took the headset off just as he was finishing his talk. All I heard was: 'And if you give the ball to Pat, you'll win'. I was only 19 but he knew I could cope with that pressure and flourish. Great days."

Unexpectedly, he says the same of his spell at Everton, or at least the early part. Although Colin Harvey's more system-oriented approach meant he no longer enjoyed a free rein, his ratio of goals to games was better than at Chelsea. He also played in cup finals for the first time and felt appreciated by supporters.

"My final season there was different because Howard Kendall had taken over and we didn't get on. I assume that he assumed I wasn't a good team man, though maybe he just didn't rate me, which is his prerogative. The shame was that I was 28 and should've been at the peak of my career."

His involvement in the management committee of the players' union (which he later led) may not have enhanced his image with Everton's hierarchy, who were prime movers in the Premier League. "It just so happened," says Nevin, "that when there was a possibility of our going on strike, I got dropped not to the reserves, but the A team. A coincidence, of course!"

The pattern was similar at Tranmere. After three "brilliant" years, during which he won as many Scotland caps (14) as at the two bigger clubs put together, came a fall from favour with John Aldridge and a summer move to the Scottish Cup holders.

"Some managers make simplistic assumptions. They see something that outwardly looks like a non-team thing - e.g. I might not get as pissed as everyone - and assume I don't understand the need to pull together. In fact the importance of the group over the individual was bred into me at an early age. I played for the Celtic Boys Club, where there was an almost Jesuitical, or socialist, sense of `all for one, one for all'."

Team spirit is a subject which the supposed "loner" and Sik, taking on the role of inquisitor, devote much space. "It takes a great manager to build it," Nevin tells me, "yet it's a fragile thing that can be lost easily. One player who may not seem important can turn out to be the linchpin. At Chelsea it was Tony McAndrew - things fell apart after he left."

No side he has played in had better camaraderie than Scotland at Euro 92 in Sweden. "There were some great talents in the group before that but they didn't have that unity, possibly because there were bigger egos involved. Though I was in that squad, I felt an outsider, a voyeur.

"While Andy Roxburgh and Craig Brown were very good at tactics and assessing other teams' strengths, the biggest thing both had was the ability to engender group spirit. If a player wasn't going to enhance it, it didn't matter how much the press was shouting for him or how good he was. They were prepared to lose him."

Brown, who launched the teenaged Nevin into senior football when he was in charge of Clyde, is an urbane man with a background in education. However, the Scotland manager confesses he can not drive past a park match without stopping to watch. Playing devil's advocate, I put it to Nevin that he might have achieved more by immersing himself in football rather than extra-curricular distractions.

"If my spare time is spent going to a museum or reading rather than going to the pub or the bookies, what's the difference? But I'll tell you something - throughout my career, at whichever club, no one's spent more time training than me."

Not that "bevvying" is necessarily bad. Despite being a lifelong Celtic fan, Nevin concedes an admiration for the way Rangers have sanctioned the occasional booze-up as therapy for squad "bonding".

Which brings us full circle to the group ethic. For Nevin that now means Kilmarnock, in whose manager, Bobby Williamson, he sees many of the qualities he warmed to in Neal and Brown. "The one I've come to value above all," he states pointedly, "is honesty." A simple starting point, amid all the psychological drama and ballet-hoo of football, to the game of winning minds and hearts.

*Published by Headline, hardback, pounds 15.99.