This week’s instalment of Reading the Game is The Accidental Footballer by Pat Nevin. If you’ve been following the series, you’ll have already noticed that The Accidental Footballer is a bit of an outlier because it’s an autobiography, which isn’t the kind of football book I usually choose. I’m also slightly too young to remember Nevin’s breakthrough at Chelsea, although my mum, who was a Blues fan all her live, raved about the Glaswegian winger.
I am, however, a huge fan of Nevin’s punditry, especially on the BBC World Service show World Football, which I listen to as a podcast. The Accidental Footballer made it to quite near the top of my Christmas list last December because I thought that if the book was half as entertaining and accessible as Nevin’s radio work then it would be a terrific read.
Sure enough, I found this to be an enormously rewarding book. It is honest without being excessively earnest, written with warmth and a self-deprecating humour and reflective without being overly introspective. Because it’s a memoir, Nevin doesn’t limit himself to talking about his career, which helps the tale enormously. The depiction of London in the mid-1980s is vivid and having initially pushed back against the idea of a career in the professional game, the fact that the author just decided to see where pursuing the opportunity took him makes for an often-surprising read.
One of my favourite aspects of The Accidental Footballer was how Nevin wrote about his friendship with the DJ John Peel. They were star-struck by each other; the footballer’s love of indie music meant he considered Peel one of his heroes, while the DJ was such a massive football fan that his respect for the player was deep and immediate. The warmth with which Pat Nevin writes about ‘Peely’ radiates from the page and really resonated with me; I used to listen to the John Peel Show on headphones under the covers when I was supposed to be asleep. It’s entirely fitting that each chapter’s title comes from a song from one of the author’s favourite bands.
While Nevin is loyal and warm when writing about his friends, he remains fiercely principled and this also comes through in the pages of The Accidental Footballer. Having famously criticised Chelsea’s fans for racially abusing the club’s first black player (Nevin’s friend Paul Canoville, whose own book is worth seeking out), our protagonist even attempted to reason with members of the National Front. As he recounts this aspect of his time at Stamford Bridge, the words crackle with the fury Nevin felt then, which has clearly never left him. However, by this stage of the book, I wasn’t remotely surprised that the Scotsman had tackled the issue, given what I’d learned about his upbringing in Glasgow, which placed a high value on socialist principles and education.
The Accidental Footballer takes the reader from that childhood, through to Nevin’s move to Tranmere Rovers meaning that there is potentially another volume to come. Given that Pat Nevin went on to become the Chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association, then the Chief Executive of Motherwell FC before moving into the media, I certainly hope so. I’d like to read about his experiences in those roles.
The Accidental Footballer was an absolute joy to read. Nevin writes about the fact that he saw the world differently to most other players – at Everton, he couldn’t persuade any of his teammates to join him on a VIP trip to The Great Wall of China and he was once threatened with a fine for not drinking – but does so without malice or to suggest any sense of superiority. Instead, there is genuine admiration for the players he worked with and what they achieved as well as recognition of the friendships made.
The Accidental Footballer is not your typical ex-player’s memoir, which is why I have absolutely no hesitation in warmly recommending it. This is the story of a life well lived, engagingly told. If you want a copy for yourself, you could get one from Stanchion, the football bookshop, or from any of the major outlets.