Tag Archives: Pat Nevin

The end of John Terry

Earlier this week, I went to Stamford Bridge for the last time this season. It was also the last time I will ever see John Terry play there for Chelsea.

As I watched him play and score, I realised I was sitting exactly where I was when I saw Terry make his debut almost two decades before.

He came on as sub for Dan Petrescu in a League Cup tie. Terry’s debut was overshadowed by the fact Petrescu went off in a huff, Luca Vialli scored a hat-trick and Dennis Wise got sent off for one of the worst and most pointless tackles I’ve ever seen. In the years that followed, I’ve moved house, crossed the river, changed jobs, had children, got married, lost my hair, written books… but whenever I’ve gone to the Bridge (less frequently in the past decade), I’ve always had the same seat and Terry has nearly always been on the pitch.

I didn’t know much about Terry when he made his first appearance, but quickly came to admire him as a player. He appeared to have inherited Frank Leboeuf’s gift for hitting raking inch-perfect passes but also loved a sliding tackle, making him the sort of UK-EU hybrid that can excel in the Premier League. It swiftly became apparent he was an exceptional defender. Commanding in the air and strong in the tackle, but also with an outstanding ability at reading the game and comfortable with both feet. I always felt this part of this game didn’t get anywhere near the credit it deserved. Terry was a fantastic footballer, as good on the ball as any defender I’ve seen – including Carvalho and Rio Ferdinand, his partners in defence for Chelsea and England, and to whom he was often compared unfavourably. True, they both looked more elegant in command, but Terry’s first touch was better than both. He couldn’t carry the ball, but he could pass it like a dream. And his reading of the game was immense; it was the reason he rarely got beaten for pace despite so clearly lacking it himself. I saw him once in Harley Street; he was tall but not as solid as I expected. Terry was strong but he was no carthorse.

At some point, however, Terry got typecast as a throwback, a sort of Terry Butcher upgrade, cannon fodder, a lion from the trenches. The Guardian’s execrable but influential Fiver began mocking him as EBJT, while the tabloids lauded him for his bravery above all else. As a result, his game did change slightly – read here what Charlie Cooke once told me about how the press can influence a footballer’s natural style – as he threw himself eagerly into blocks where previously he might have looked to get a nick. He soon adjusted his style again, and until age caught up with him had an astonishingly clean record. In the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona in 2009, when Chelsea spent almost the entire 180 minutes defending, he committed I think only a single foul.

As Chelsea captain, Terry had a role with far more importance at Stamford Bridge than almost anywhere else thanks to the stability and leadership he provided against a constant churn of incoming and outgoing managers. Terry often had to hold the dressing room together, most notably after Mourinho’s first departure when the team pulled together to reach the Champions League final despite the presence of out-of-his-depth coach Avram Grant.

Terry was often pinpointed as the troublemaker responsible for all this disruption but it always seemed to me that the continental-raised players – Ballack, Cech, Drogba – were usually at the centre of any shenanigans, raised as they were in a climate where it was more acceptable to confront coaches for poor decisions.

Still, the reputation stuck, along with much else. I’ve always tried to avoid judging players for things reported by the press, mainly because knowing how football journalists operate I don’t trust a word they write. I try to judge players only by how they good they are at football, so have no lacerating hatred of players like Suarez and Ronaldo or managers like Allardyce and Pulis – I think all four are brilliant. With Terry, that’s challenging. While some of the accusations made about him are hysterical – anything written by Matthew Syed, for instance – the volume of his indiscretions makes them hard to ignore. I cannot pretend I’ve ever warmed to the guy as a personality. Put it this way, he’s no Pat Nevin. But he is the greatest defender I’ve ever seen in my life and for much of the past 20 years it’s been a privilege to watch him do his job.

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Why I love Pat Nevin

I remember when I fell in love with Pat Nevin. It was in the playground and somebody was passing round a 1985 Panini sticker album. I turned straight to the Chelsea page to see my heroes.

There was Kerry Dixon, bluffly handsome with golden hair, azure eyes and self-confident grin. There was Colin Pates, a brick-wall centre-back with disco dancer hair. There was Doug Rougvie with a nose that looked like it had lost an argument with a spade.

And there was Pat Nevin. Pasty-faced, greasy-haired, nervous, thin and sullen. He looked like a smackhead. Who wouldn’t fall in love?

I only saw Nevin play once for Chelsea, a 3-0 victory at Watford in 1988 about which I remember little, but his legend loomed large over the following years. By the time I started watching Chelsea regularly the next season, the club were in the Second Division and Nevin was at Everton, but my bible, the Chelsea Independent fanzine, spoke of little else.

They drooled over Nevin’s dribble against Newcastle, when he beat eight players in a slalom run that took him from one end of the pitch to the other. They marvelled at his free kick against Sheffield Wednesday, when he chipped the ball over the defensive wall, ran round the other side and lofted a perfect cross on to David Speedie’s goalscoring noggin. They giggled at his famous penalty miss against Manchester City.

The love seemed mutual. When Nevin was injured playing for Tranmere, he attended a Chelsea-Everton game at Goodison Park and paid to go in the Chelsea end. This was important. Chelsea fans, then as now, were despised, but if somebody like Nevin loved us, maybe there was hope, maybe there was redemption,

And Nevin was the sort of player that fans love – an exciting, creative, unpredictable dribbler, but there was more to it than this. Nevin was smart. Nevin was cool. Nevin was different.

He angrily attacked his own supporters for their racist, violent and anti-semitic predilections – to the delight of the left-wing students at the Chelsea Independent. He read French and Russian literature. His favourite bands were Joy Division, Jesus And Mary Chain and the Cocteau Twins. He once insisted on being substituted at half-time in a friendly so he could attend a gig. He brought Brechtian principles to the club programme when he interviewed himself – yes, himself – for a player profile. He was friends with John Peel. For the teenager who read Camus and listened to Sonic Youth it was a no-brainer: if you could be a footballer, you’d be Pat Nevin.

NME described Nevin as the first post-punk footballer, although it may have been more accurate to say he was the first art school footballer. He was also the last. 

When at Everton, Nevin gave a lengthy to the Chelsea Independent, and talked at length about football, music and literature, and what it was like drinking in Soho with George Melly. I’d never heard of Melly, but here I was, learning about jazz and the counterculture from a footballer, in a fanzine. Would that happen now? 

When I interviewed Colin Pates – who is not a stupid man, by any means -he still seemed bemused by the fact Nevin would read books on the way to away games rather than play cards. Nevin, though, never seemed to get bullied about his interests. He was clever, but he was also proudly working-class and therefore more acceptable to other footballers and more capable of sticking up for himself than the middle-class Guardian-reading Graeme Le Saux who followed him as Chelsea’s token intellectual.

In the early 1990s, I finally got to see Nevin play at Stamford Bridge. He was wearing an Everton kit, but when he scored the Shed gave him a standing ovation – the only time I have ever seen Chelsea fans applaud an opposition goal. Pat Nevin was a very intelligent footballer and when he was around, fans seemed to use their brains a little bit more as well.