Sitting with a group of lads on Saturday night, who were quite possibly the most drunk (and lively) people I have ever met in my life (but still lovely, however), I eagerly awaited my third, football guest-speaker – I have been fortunate to see a few over the past few weeks – Paul Merson. Quite a fitting day to see one of the best pundits on the Soccer Saturday team. Universally adored by legions of fans, throughout his playing career, and now carving a niche as one of the game’s liveliest voices on Soccer Saturday, Merse is great company for the likes of Matt Le Tissier and Phil Thompson, and is often the target of good-humoured jabs from the team. Never shy about coming forward with his own demons – alcohol, drugs and gambling – Merse had quite a story to tell, in the cosy, lighted arena of Treforest Football Club (and what a guest speaker to have! He was funny from start to finish, and had everyone laughing).
Merse went into great detail about his gambling stories, and has also written his autobiography: How Not to Be a Professional Footballer. Joining Arsenal in 1984, Merson spent 13 years with the Gunners, and featured under George Graham, Bruce Rioch and Arsène Wenger. Rioch was the man who signed his mercurial teammate, Dennis Bergkamp (who Merson described as the best player he played alongside – ‘He made the people around him look good. He sees everything. He’s a great guy too.’ Paolo Maldini was the toughest player he’s faced). I can remember watching Merson during France ’98 (Paul admitted he was terrified of taking a penalty, during England’s game against Argentina). I can remember him being interviewed on Match of the Day, and occasionally, pitting my wits against him on Championship Manager! Being able to see the guy in the flesh, was an absolute joy.
I love Paul, because he’s admitted he can be a bit dopey at times (although he does suffer from dyslexia). That’s what makes him so great – when he used to struggle with names, like Aliadière and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake. He spoke about his first trip to a betting shop at age 16, and pretended he’d been mugged, after cashing his first ever wages from Arsenal, on the horses. He went down an alleyway and smashed his face against the wall. He’s also sadly had broken marriages (his first wife left him with a nasty scar on the hand, after she went at him with a knife).
Merson clinched the First Division title with Arsenal in 1988-89 (a last gasp Michael Thomas goal against Liverpool sealed the points). Merse scored ten times that season, and was voted PFA Young Player of the Year. He bagged another league championship in 1991, both the FA Cup and League Cup in 1993 (scoring an equaliser in the League Cup Final v Sheffield Wednesday), and the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994. He also made his debut for the full England side, in a friendly against Germany, on 11 September 1991.
At the end of the 1996-97 season (after Arsene Wenger had taken over), Middlesbrough offered to double his wages to drop down to the Championship, in a £5 million deal – making him the most expensive player ever signed by a non-Premiership team. Merson played 423 times for Arsenal and scored 99 goals. He was a key player in Middlesbrough’s promotion success, as Division One runners-up in 1997-98, and scored 12 times in 48 appearances.
In 1998, he left Boro for Aston Villa, for £6.75 million, and netted 18 times. During the night in Treforest, Merse talked about Harry Redknapp, and how he wanted him to sign for Portsmouth. He helped get them to the Premiership in 2002-03. In February 2004 (after being snapped up by Walsall), Merse was admitted to the Sierra Tucson Clinic in Arizona, to seek help for his gambling addiction. Upon his return, he was thrown into the manager’s position, and led a bid to regain Division One status, but was eventually relegated, after a 3-2 victory against Rotherham United, whilst having to rely on Stoke City beating Gillingham F.C. on the final day. Merson’s side went undefeated during May 2005 – securing League One status for another year – but as the club entered the 2005-06 season, he was unable to lift Walsall out of the relegation zone, and was sacked on 6 February 2006.
Paul played for Arsenal, alongside some stellar names, and none more so than Tony Adams. He mentioned a great story about a picture of him, with donkey’s ears coming out – ‘Eeyore Adams’. Tony was kipping at Merse’s house after a night drinking, and p***ed himself on the new sofa bed. Paul chased Adams down the street, shouting, “Adams, you’re a ****ing donkey!” I’d just like to point out at this stage – I have the utmost respect for the likes of Merson and Adams. During the period between 1998 and 2004, Arsenal were my most feared, Premier League side (as a Man United fan). They scared the flipping life out of me. I also admired the hell out of them as well. Every time we played you, we seemed to lose. Add to that, the likes of Seaman, Dixon, Keown, Winterburn, Ljungberg, Vieira, Petit, Overmars, Pirès, Anelka and Henry – it’s no wonder Arsenal eventually went on to complete the unbeaten season. And with the new season starting in August, you still have Wenger in charge – whereas the other, top three clubs all have new managers. It should make for an interesting 2013/14 campaign. It shall also be fun watching Soccer Saturday again. Rooney, anyone? I keep thinking of great questions to ask, once the actual night is over: ‘Paul – What do you think of Piers Morgan?’
Merse’s reaction to Man City winning the league –