He admires Wodehouse for “his use of words – the perfect word every single time. Many people look down on comic writing but it’s the hardest thing to do, to make people laugh.” There are two features that set The Accidental Footballer apart from most football books. First, the long footnotes; it’s a technique he borrowed from Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor, in order to allow him “a load of freedom to go in different directions”. Second, the use of dialogue. It was Nevin’s editor who told him, “‘You’re good at dialogue, do more of the discussions like that – take them out of description and put them in dialogue, it reads better.’ So I went back and looked at dialogue I love: Jane Austen, Wodehouse. Both of them are quite humorous in a subtle way. I’ve always loved the nuance of language. That’s why the dialogue is fun because you can then sit in their position and try to remember how they used language – don’t put a word in their mouth that they’d never use.” When it came to John Peel, the former BBC DJ on whose show he would make regular appearances, he actually listened back to an old tape to ensure “I was able to use Peely’s actual words”.
For the audio version of the book, he even does the accents. “When I was doing the reading, the guy I was reading it to, the proof guy, laughed a couple of times and that’s what I wanted.” In this case, it was laughter prompted by his account of an evening at Morrissey’s house, sipping raspberry tea and playing football in the back garden. It is easy to imagine younger readers, in particular, struck by his sketches of the very different world that footballers inhabited in his era. Not least at Chelsea, the club he left for Everton after the former’s relegation in 1988.
“One of the people I thank in my book is Theresa,” says Nevin. “She basically ran the club back then and she’s still at Chelsea today. Five or six are still there, and a lot of the fans who were youngsters then – and a football club is the fans. The other side of it is the quality of play, the standard of players, the money, three-quarters of the stadium … and how it’s seen in the world is just unrecognisable. It’s kind of not the same club but how many are, really? I’d say Everton are almost the same club – I go there and I feel as if I am walking into the same club.
“But as a gigantic worldwide club, as Chelsea is, it bears little resemblance on the outside. It’s facing outwards and that changes what the club is. It’s now looking out to Europe, Asia, America, the world. People might have a dig at that, but that wouldn’t make sense. I write for the website and I’m happy for the club to grow because in this business you can’t stand still. It still actually feels like my team, oddly enough.”
In Nevin’s day, the closest Chelsea got to looking to Asia was an exhibition match in Iraq at which the guest of honour was Saddam Hussein – a trip, he recounts, that nearly sparked a players’ revolt over their £6-per-day spending money from then chairman Ken Bates. Nevin’s light tone does not diminish some of the weightier topics. He describes a fight between Canoville and an unnamed team-mate over the latter’s “inappropriate slurs” and his own public support of the winger after some Chelsea supporters racially abused Canoville during a Second Division match against Crystal Palace in 1984.