This week’s trip down memory lane features a player blessed with wonderful natural ability. A man who could produce the unexpected and the spectacular. A star of many talents, it’s Paul Merson.
Very versatile in the forward positions, the Merse would be equally at home playing out wide or as a second striker dropping into the number ten slot.
Merse had many attributes. He was a very intelligent and gifted player, who could run at defenders with pace and power, hit accurate raking forty yard cross field passes, had great control and clever movement. But the best thing in Paul’s armoury was his ability to score spectacular goals from long distance, he had the technique to volley or chip the ball over the keeper, or bend it into the top corner, the Merse could strike a ball powerfully with tremendous swerve, using the outside of his right foot to great effect, causing all sorts of problems for goalkeepers. Although Paul wasn’t a goal machine like Ian Wright or Thierry Henry, he was capable of scoring stunning breathtaking goals.
Born in Harlesden Paul signed for Arsenal on associated schoolboy forms in 1982. Chelsea, QPR and Watford were all interested in Paul, but he choose The Arsenal as Paul’s dad was an Arsenal fan. Merse as a kid was small, very frail and didn’t like the physical side of the game, although all the skill was there.
Arsenal manager Don Howe knew all about the flaws in his Paul’s game and called him into his office and said “I’m making you an apprentice son, but I’m going to put you on the YTS scheme. We get one YTS place from the government, so I have to take a gamble and I’m taking the gamble on you.” Don also said “if you don’t get any bigger, we won’t be signing you as a professional.”
A sign of the off field problems ahead came at the end of Paul’s first month as a YTS player. He withdrew his first months salary from the Barclays Bank in Finsbury Park, the princely sum of £100, then walked straight into a William Hill bookies, with another young Arsenal player Wes Reid and spunked the lot in about 15 minutes! After getting the train home to Northolt, Merse rubbed his face against a wall, which caused the required scratches and cuts to enable him to convince his mum and dad he’d been mugged for his £100 on the train home!
Fortunately for Paul he shot up in height and eventually grew to 6 foot. He also filled out as well and rapidly rose through the ranks to play in the reserves and begun to to train with the first team. By then Don Howe had left the club and George Graham had taken the managers hot seat. He decided that Paul needed some first team experience to round off his football education and sent Merse to Brentford, where his old mate Frank McLintock was the manager.
After Paul played about six games for Brentford George had seen enough and he recalled Merse to Highbury and on the 22nd November 1986 Paul made his debut, coming on as a substitute against Manchester City at Highbury. I was at that game and Paul stood out with that distinctive mop of blonde hair and you could tell he was going to be some player for The Arsenal. The Merse was the latest Arsenal youngster off the conveyor belt of talent. Arsenal had a real goldmine at that time with Tony Adams, David Rocastle, Michael Thomas, Niall Quinn, Martin Hayes all making their mark at Arsenal, with George only too happy to play them.
Paul made another substitute appearance against Chelsea in March, before playing five games at the end of the season, when Merse scored three times, including a goal against Wimbledon, away at Plough Lane on his first start for the club.
The next season 1987-88 Merse was used sparingly by George Graham and played 17 games in all competitions, nine of them as a substitute and scored five goals.
1988-89 was When Merse became a first team regular, forming a great partnership upfront with Alan Smith. Merse scored 14 times in all competitions, played a big part in winning the Title and won the PFA Young Player of the Year Award.
In 1989-90 Arsenal finished fourth with Merse scoring 7 times in the League. There was a memorable goal he scored against Liverpool, at Highbury, which ended in a 1-1 draw, with John Barnes scoring a late equaliser.Merse gives Arsenal the lead against Liverpool at Highbury
Paul and Arsenal were back to their best in 1990-91 with Arsenal winning the Title and the Merse contributing 16 goals in all competitions, including an important winning goal up at Anfield, when he played a great one two with Smudger allowing him to run through on goal to flick it past Bruce Grobbelaar with his right foot.Merse scores at Anfield against Liverpool
Merse was the provider for Smudger when his cheeky back heel put Smudger in for Arsenal’s third goal in a 3-0 win, against Liverpool at Highbury.Smudger finishes a great back heel from Merse as Arsenal hammer Liverpool at Highbury
The following season Arsenal finished fourth. Merse played in every game for us and scored some cracking goals, including one against Sheffield Wednesday, when Arsenal demolished them 7-1 at Highbury.Arsenal wipe the floor with Sheffield Wednesday
While things were going well for Paul on the pitch, off it was another matter, his drinking was spiralling out of control and he was causing problems for himself, as well as George Graham, with his antics and George was finding it increasingly harder to protect and control him. Merse was conducting himself more like hell raiser Oliver Reed than the top class professional footballer he undoubtedly was. Things were going to come to a head sooner rather than later.
It wasn’t just the drinking, Merse was also a compulsive gambler as well. When Paul first broke into the side he was losing hundreds of pounds at a time, but by the early nineties he was losing thousands, the more his wages increased the bigger his losses were.
1992-93 was a poor season for Arsenal in the league, we ended up finishing 10th, but it was still a good one as we won the domestic cup double, beating Sheffield Wednesday in both the FA Cup Final, after a replay and the League Cup Final. Merse played in all three games and scored the equaliser for Arsenal in the League Cup Final, another Merse special, before setting up the winner for Steve Morrow. Merse rates it as his best ever game for Arsenal and who am I to argue! After the game Tony Adams celebrated by picking up Steve Marrow, but he dropped him and Steve Morrow ended up breaking his arm. Poor Steve Morrow ended up in a hospital bed for some time, it was that bad a break.The 1993 League Cup Final against Sheffield Wednesday
This was also the final when Merse ran over to the Arsenal fans swigging imaginary pints of lager and playing up to the crowd. In the FA Cup Final Replay Merse put the cross in that Andy Linighan headed home to give us the trophy.
In 1993-94 Arsenal’s league form picked up and we finished 4th that season. In February 1994 we played Everton at Goodison Park and Merse got a great goal chipping the ball over Neville Southall in a 1-1 draw. But that night Paul took cocaine for the first time and with his addictive personality there only one way that was going to turn out. Paul became a cocaine addict, as well as an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler. How he managed to keep playing at the top level with The Arsenal I’ll never know.Merse scores a great goal at Everton before taking cocaine for the first time
In the Cup Winners Cup Arsenal played the Danish side Odense BK. Arsenal won 2-1 away, with Merse scoring one of the goals. Paul thought that Arsenal would hammer them at Highbury in the 2nd leg and the bookies agreed with him, making Arsenal 1/7 hot favourites to beat the Danes and Merse was that confident we’d beat them he stuck £7,000 on to win £1,000. Arsenal went 1-0 up and the Danes equalised right at the death and that was seven grand down the Swanee!
We hammered Standard Liege 10-0 on aggregate in the next round, winning 7-0 away in the 2nd leg, with Merse scoring in both games. We then went through 1-0 against Torino at Highbury, with Tony Adams getting the winner, after a 0-0 in the 1st leg in Italy. In the Semi-Final we had tough opponents in PSG. We drew 1-1 in Paris when Wrighty scored our goal and went through to the Final in Copenhagen, when we beat PSG 1-0 at Highbury, with Kevin Campbell scoring the winner. The only downer on the night was Ian Wright sadly got a yellow card to rule him out the Final.
Arsenal played Parma in the Final and Merse was in the starting line-up. Parma were favourites to win it and they had three outstanding forwards in Brolin, Asprilla and Zola, but after Smudger gave Arsenal the lead with a glorious volley in off the post in the 20th minute, we spent the rest of the game getting battered, but our famous back four had their finest hour and we hung on to win it.
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The Colombian marching powder was finally taking its toll on Paul and if Wrighty hadn’t have been suspended Merse wouldn’t have played in the final. The walls were closing in on Paul.
In November 1994 Paul couldn’t cope anymore. He went to see Ken Friar in his office “I’m struggling here” Paul said “I need help. I owe thousands and thousands of pounds in gambling debts. I’m in serious trouble’ Ken looked shocked then Paul dropped another bombshell “And I’m addicted to drugs, cocaine” Paul could tell that Ken was blown away “Right” said Ken “We’re going to sort you out. We’re going to help you”.
I remember Paul breaking down and crying at the press conference, when he faced the music with George Graham one side of him and Gordon Taylor on the other, with flashbulbs going off left, right and centre. I felt so sorry for him.
Merse said George Graham had been so supportive of him and much later Paul asked George why he didn’t put him on the transfer list. George replied “If you own a Robin Reliant and it breaks down, you get rid of it, if you own a Rolls-Royce and it breaks down, you get it repaired’
Paul and Arsenal did a deal with the FA, they wanted to ban him for 20 matches and he had to go straight into rehab, which he did for two months. After the first week in rehab Paul’s dad told him the Arsenal fans at Highbury during the game had been singing “There’s only one Paul Merson” Paul said he couldn’t believe it and he loved them for it. Paul left rehab on the 13th January 1995.
Paul eventually made his comeback on the 1st of February 1995, against AC Milan in the Super Cup at Highbury, coming on as a substitute to an unbelievable reception from the Arsenal fans, Paolo Maldini patted Merse on the back and said “Welcome back”.
But Merse didn’t get the stability he needed at that time, as a few months later another huge scandal rocked Highbury when George Graham was sacked for taking bungs.
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Arsenal under caretaker boss Stewart Houston, with Merse in the side reached the Cup Winners Cup Final again, this time against the Spanish outfit Real Zaragoza, when after going 1-0 down John Hartson equalised for us and just seconds away from a penalty shoot out, Ex-Spurs midfielder Nayim lobbed the ball over David Seaman from forty yards and our bid to retain to retain the trophy in Paris was over.
I was in Paris for that game and the French police were a nightmare. I asked one for directions and I thought he was going to smash me with his baton. As we were herded up and marched to the stadium, a van full of French police were waving little Spanish flags at us through the windows, then they kept the Arsenal fans in at the end of the game, tear gassed them behind the goal and marched us away from the stadium in the opposite direction to where we were staying. A bad night all round for us.
We ended the season finishing 12th and by the start of the 1995-96 season Bruce Rioch was the new Arsenal manager. Rioch bought David Platt and more importantly Dennis Bergkamp to the club and we finished 5th and qualified for a place in Europe. But Rioch fell out with Wrighty and Ian handed in a transfer request. Arsenal ended up sacking Rioch and bringing in Arsene Wenger in September 1996.
But previous to that on the 8th May 1996 Merse was given a testimonial by the club and we had the very rare sight of Glenn Hoddle and Paul Gascogne playing for The Arsenal, wearing the famous red and white Arsenal kit! It was quite a night seeing Merson, Hoddle, Gazza, Wrighty and Bergkamp all lining up on the same side for the Gunners.
Arsene’s first season at Arsenal was to be the last one for Merse. He played in most of the games and Arsenal finished 3rd in the league. His last goal for Arsenal came on the 19th January 1997, against Everton in a 3-1 win at Highbury and his last game was on the 11th May 1997, against Derby County away, in another 3-1 victory.
Paul left Arsenal dropping down a division to join Bryan Robson at Middlesbrough. I know that Merse later regretted leaving Arsenal. According to Paul Arsene Wenger wanted Paul to stay and offered him a decent new contract, but Middlesbrough were prepared to pay him almost twice as much, at a million pounds a season. So he moved to Middlesbrough for about £5 million and the Middlesbrough fans loved him as he helped get them get promoted back to the top flight.
Paul then moved on to Aston Villa in 1998, where he spent four years, playing in the FA Cup Final in 2000 , against Chelsea, the last FA Cup Final at the old Wembley, in a 1-0 defeat. Merse was also a big favourite of the Villa fans.
Merse joined Harry Redknapp at Portsmouth in 2002-03 and won the First Division Championship with them By this time Merse was 35 and he didn’t feel he could still do it in the Premiership. So he ended up joining Walsall as player manager for two seasons.Paul telling a great story about his time at Portsmouth
Merse also played 21 times for England, scoring 3 goals between 1991 and 1998. He was part of the England squad for both the 1992 European Championships in Sweden and the 1998 World Cup in France.
Paul now aged 48 looks to have finally banished his addiction demons and is a familiar face on Sky, where he is a regular with Jeff Stelling every Week on Soccer Saturday.
Paul Merson played 425 times for Arsenal and agonisingly ended up scoring 99 goals for us over 11 seasons. Merse made some terrible decisions off the pitch, some of his drinking and betting anecdotes are incredible. But the Arsenal fans loved the Magic Man and I of course was no exception.A great selection of Paul’s goals
As always thanks for reading – there’ll be another Highbury Hero coming your way next week.