Former Arsenal midfielder has always been frank about his personal problems and attempts to be ‘honest and fair’ as a pundit
There is a tattoo on Paul Merson’s arm which reads, “Don’t judge me until you’ve walked a mile in my shoes”, and perhaps the first big misnomer concerns the man behind the microphone. Merson might be paid to reel off opinions about football, but he evidently cares deeply about the impact that they might have. Just ask Harry Maguire.
Merson was asked his thoughts on Maguire’s transfer from Leicester City to Manchester United in the summer of 2019. He duly said what was on his mind – that Maguire was a decent enough player, but the £80m fee was “ridiculous” – and the video of his impassioned critique has been trending across social media on and off for the past three years.
Merson grimaces at the thought.
“I don’t want to be right on that – I’d rather be wrong,” he says. “I want England to win the World Cup and Harry Maguire to get the winning goal. It was just my opinion. I rang up Brendan Rodgers and said, ‘Can you get me Harry Maguire’s number?’ I didn’t feel comfortable with myself. I needed to ring him and say, ‘I don’t agree with the £80m, but I shouldn’t have said that and I’m sorry’. I went a little bit too far.
“He couldn’t believe it. Probably thought it was a joke. I don’t think he has had a fair crack. He’s struggling and he’s playing on the left when he’s right-footed.”
Merson then smiles as he recalls his assessment of the £55m that Manchester City paid for Kevin De Bruyne in 2015. He called that fee “a joke” based on what he had seen of De Bruyne at Chelsea, who had paid £7m for him, and very happily now holds up his hands.
“People still come up to me when I’ve already said 50 times how great Kevin De Bruyne is,” he says. “I only said what I saw. I’m a Chelsea fan. I also saw Mo Salah at Chelsea. They didn’t cut it. They come back and are two of the best players in the world. Right place at the right time.”
While Merson says that punditry itself has not changed during the past 15 years – “be honest and be fair” – the surrounding social media swirl is a game-changer. He now actively avoids the medium and it is not difficult to understand why.
“I don’t like it when people go on there and say, ‘He’s clueless, sack him, he hasn’t got a brain’. I’ve got good knowledge on football even if I get it wrong sometimes. Talk to me about politics, I’ve not got a clue.
“Football, I played all my life. Under the top managers. I know my football. I’ll sit with anybody over a table and talk football. I confidently stood on Sky the other day with Gary Neville, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Roy Keane. The hardest part is when you have to be critical of one of the best players who’s ever played football. (Cristiano) Ronaldo was a hundred times better player than me and I’ve got to say Man United are not going to win anything with him in the team.”
The backlash even reached the ludicrous point of death threats after Merson had the temerity to say United would not win the Premier League with Anthony Martial as their main striker. “Someone put a message out, saying, ‘I’m going to kill you, your kids’. I don’t need that. I’m just doing my job.”
Merson estimates 95pc of social media postings on football are abusive or negative and, for his own mental health, he has stopped reading messages. “You have a choice,” he says. “Some people know how to do it: block him, don’t read him. I had to read everybody and I would reply in a nice way. Nine times out of 10, they would come back and say, ‘sorry about that’. I understand. But it’s me and makes me feel bad. Do I read it, feel bad, angry and bitter? Or do I not read it?”
The irony is that people are overwhelmingly friendly in person and he then laughs at the recollection of meeting one football fan following a talk in Manchester. “The geeza said, ‘I thought you were a w****r until I heard your story’.”
We meet in a fitness studio in Islington where, as part of his work with Recoverlution, a new online platform designed to connect and support addicts, he has been spending time with experts in meditation, yoga and diet. The breathing noises that were earlier emanating from the yoga session underlined just how seriously he was taking classes that evoked memories of the early Arsene Wenger years at Arsenal.
Merson has been frank about the depth of his past problems with drugs (cocaine-induced paranoia), drink (35 pints a week) and gambling (£7m losses) and believes that there is a link to the anxiety and panic attacks he suffered as a child. He was even advised never to play football.
Recoverlution can connect people across time zones and, says Merson, may also help those who cannot bring themselves to attend an in-person group. “Some people are embarrassed – it’s a big thing to say, ‘I’m so and so, I’m an alcoholic, a sex addict, a drug addict, a compulsive gambler’. You are not walking in like Eric Cantona on a football pitch. You’ve been crushed. And addiction is 24/7.
“I have kept it basic. Keep talking – even for the slightest thing. Because that can fester and, in the past, has made me have a drink and a bet. Addiction wants you on your own. When you stop talking to people, that’s when it goes horribly wrong.”
Merson says that he still feels like “a kid in a man’s body” but believes that he now has choices which were not available when he was surrounded by a drinking and gambling ¬culture in the pomp of his playing career. Even a night in at Middlesbrough with Paul Gascoigne might end with gambling over who could stay awake the longest while they drank wine and popped sleeping pills.
Merson once told a psychologist that he wanted to be like his level-headed Arsenal team-mate Alan Smith and so it is fascinating to hear him also explain how the off-field chaos underpinned his on-field flair.
“It made me a better player – it made me relax. There’s no rationale when you gamble. I was good at drinking. Didn’t get hangovers. Never had one day off. I’ve even been at a (night) club and turned up straight for training,” he says.
“I played football carefree. I saw things on the pitch. (I’d think), ‘You know what, for all my problems off the pitch, this hour and a half on the football pitch is bliss. I might as well try whatever I want’. I was a brave footballer.”
Merson made the most public revelation of his ongoing challenges when he broke down in tears on the Harry’s Heroes television programme in 2019. He has since admitted that he had been having suicidal thoughts and believes that opening up saved his life.
Phil Thompson, the former Liverpool captain and ex-Sky Sports colleague, remains a constant support and persuaded him to stay on Soccer Saturday after Matt Le Tissier, Charlie Nicholas and Thompson himself were axed two years ago.
“I rang Thommo and said ‘What should I do?’ and he said, ‘A hundred per cent you stay’. I have to work. I’m not a multi-millionaire. He’s such a nice bloke.” Elton John has been a more unlikely rock. “He was the first person to ring me when I came out (of Harry’s Heroes) – he stays in touch,” Merson says. “Just a normal man. He’s a recovering addict. Addiction takes anyone. He’s the biggest pop star in the world. It can take a postman. A builder. That’s why I do this work. I do it for one person to reach out.” (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd, 2022)
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