Most fans associate Pat Nevin with his time at Chelsea, rather than his time at Tranmere Rovers. As a Tranmere fan, I don’t, but I know I’m in the minority. Chelsea are Chelsea, after all. If you play for them you benefit from headlines in The Sun, massive attendances every weekend and the King’s Road boutiques, which will certainly attract more attention than the occasional Liverpool Echo report, Anglo-Italian Cup crowds and visits to the Borough Road branch of Johnsons Dry Cleaners.
Yet, if you include the 8 matches he played on loan prior to signing permanently, Nevin turned out for Tranmere on more occasions than any other club, making a total of 247 appearances between 1992 and 1997. Although he was playing at a level that was beneath him, he was utterly majestic throughout. It constantly felt like he was the kind of player that we shouldn’t be enjoying on a weekly basis. That’s five years of living in fear of suddenly waking up in a cold sweat and finding out that, in reality, you’ve got an actual donkey in boots trotting up and down the wing instead.
In 1992 his career as a top-flight footballer, at Everton, had stalled. Although he was a fans’ favourite and a regular under Colin Harvey at Goodison, Howard Kendall’s return to the club cut his first team chances considerably. The player later said about Kendall “he didn’t rate me and I didn’t rate him.”
The escape was a loan spell over the water in Birkenhead, with a team punching above their weight at the time in Division 2 (now the Championship). It enabled Nevin to get some first team action locally after injury, and he was an instant success with fans that had only just stopped pinching themselves following John Aldridge’s arrival at the club in 1991. Tranmere paid Everton £300,000 for Nevin a few months later in time for the 1992-93 season. He was the club’s record signing.
After several bizarrely-successful years of using one winger/right midfielder and a sweeper system, Tranmere’s manager Johnny King changed his formation on Nevin’s arrival to 4-4-2. An already-prolific Aldo began profiting even more, as Nevin teed up chance after chance for the striker, developing an instinctive and brilliant understanding. From day one Nevin knew exactly where Aldridge would be (a blur of white shirt and dark moustache darting in at the near post more often than not), and had the skill to pick him out time and time again.
Back then I remember getting more and more excited as the weekend approached, as it guaranteed the sight of Nevin skinning some clownish right back several times a match. His wing play at Tranmere was incredible, and he was one of the main reasons the club enjoyed its most successful period (almost getting into the Premiership three times via the play offs, and reaching the League Cup semi-final before losing on penalties to Aston Villa; unthinkable five years earlier, and unthinkable today).
What sealed the deal, though, was the fact that Nevin was quite cool for a footballer. He listened to John Peel, read fanzines and championed the NME back when it was a credible alternative. He was also fiercely intelligent, and co-wrote a fascinating book on the psychology of footballers while at Tranmere called “In Ma Head, Son”.
Back then I edited a pretty dire fanzine with a mate, and we were lucky enough to attend a talk given by Nevin at the club in his capacity as PFA Chairman, a role he held for several years. After discussing the PFA’s work and his own life at length, we cornered Pat for a quick chat in the car park. He was friendly, down-to-earth, illuminating, chatted at length about music and capped it all by jumping on to a motorbike and roaring off into the Birkenhead night.
You should never meet your heroes…unless it’s Pat Nevin.