The best attacking midfield in pop music

Its not every day that Pat Nevin gives you a lift round to your brother’s house. It was a bit cheeky of me to oblige him. But we just walked out the café together and he asked, out of politeness, what I was doing now.

To be honest, I didn’t know where I was going. We had met to discuss the show we were doing that evening. We would appear on a stage together at the Edinburgh Science Festival and he would ask me questions about the connections between maths and football. I hadn’t thought about the fact that, between now and the show, there were four long empty hours. But I had to say something.

“Oh, I was going to go round to my brother’s. He lives out past Easter Road.” It was a half-truth. My brother had said I could go round if I wanted. But until that moment, I hadn’t thought that I’d actually go there. But now it was out. Apparently, I was on my way to my brother’s house.

For any given half-lie, it is best to embellish with a half-truth. So I went on “Maybe you could give me a lift out there?”

The man has just explained to me how busy he was, and all the preparation he had to do for the weekend’s matches. And here was me, asking for a lift to tidy up a lie.

“No problem” he said.

Pat Nevin is a very nice man.

Pat Nevin was a brilliant football player and now he is the intelligent man’s commentator. In the 80’s and 90’s he was the coolest footballer around. He was in NME almost every week, giving his opinion on Joy Division, Brit Pop and the like. In the 90’s he was a champion of my favourite band at the time, Belle and Sebastian. Pat plays DJ sets at festivals and night clubs in London.

I used the opportunity of my uninvited lift to ask him about Belle & Sebastian.

“I play football with them now and again” he said. “Seven a-side”

“A lot of people I meet tell me that they have played for academies. They have a line about how they nearly made it before something went wrong. Tell me their story. But I see straight away when we start playing. It’s the movement, the touch, the way they see the game. You can see why they didn’t make it.”

“But Stuart [Murdoch, the lead singer] has got it though. He could have made it. I think. Belle and Sebastian … The best attacking midfield in pop music”.

Pat went on to confide that, musically, the Belles haven’t been on top form recently. He found their last show a confusing mix of movie and music, which didn’t work in either genre. But that doesn’t matter. We both know it. This was the band that had given us “Stars of Track and Field”. The band with the immortal line “We all know you’re soft cause we’ve all seen you dancing. We all know you’re hard because we’ve all seen you drinking from noon until noon again”. It is a band whose sound, whose lyrics and, it turns out, whose football is the real thing.

“School band. That’s what my wife calls them”, Pat said.

I laughed. My wife had said exactly the same thing to me. She thinks musicians should sing in key. But Pat and I know that isn’t the point. Hitting exactly the right note is like performing a step over without an opposition player in front of you. It looks good but, until you use it to go past your man, it doesn’t mean a thing. Belle & Sebastian are all about being up against it and finding that glimmer of brilliance that takes you through.

Pop music and football are about being genuine.

I’m not genuine. I just lied for no reason to get a busy celebrity to give me a lift I didn’t need. I wouldn’t know what to do if Pat suggested meeting up with Stuart and the boys for a kick-about. Most mediocre midfield in mathematics.

But when the spotlights go on that evening, the audience packed in to the National Museum of Scotland and me sitting there next to Pat Nevin, I’m not nervous. I am here to talk about how maths can be used in football. And I know, that Pat wants to deliver through balls direct to my feet. He will make me look good. And that’s exactly what he does.

There are no awkward silences or forced situations. There are facts and figures, numbers and structures. Everything that I am comfortable with. I can just enjoy talking to a genuine man about my genuine interests.

Ninety minutes of performance. Ninety minutes of discussion. Ninety minutes of freedom, before I have to return, once again, to that every day act of trying…and failing…to be a genuine person.

Professor of Applied Mathematics. Books: The Ten Equations (2020); Outnumbered (2018); Soccermatics (2016) and Collective Animal Behavior (2010).