Premier League Career: Arsenal (1992-1997), Middlesbrough (1998), Aston Villa (1998-2002)
Paul Merson’s career was chequered to say the least. On-the-pitch, he enjoyed immense success with Arsenal, winning two First Division titles before the Premier League was formed. He also was a vital part in the promotions to the top-flight with Middlesbrough in 1998 and Portsmouth in 2003. After an unsuccessful attempt at management, Merson has become one of the regular pundits on Gillette Soccer Saturday.
Off-the-pitch, Merson has had to face up to his demons. He admitted in 1994 to his battle against drinking, gambling and drugs which led to a rehabilitation campaign and time away from the game he cherishes the most.
It was at his first club, Arsenal where Merson enjoyed the most success. He spent 11 years with the club, joining as an apprentice in 1984 and making his first-team debut against Manchester City in November 1986. His breakthrough season came in 1988-1989, when Arsenal famously pinched the title from Liverpool FC’s grasp in the last moments of the campaign at Anfield. Paul was voted PFA Young Player of the Year, scoring 10 times in the Gunners’ triumphant campaign. He had now established himself on the right wing for George Graham and an England international call-up wasn’t far away.
That honour didn’t arrive until Graham Taylor succeeded Sir Bobby Robson as England boss. Merson made his international debut in 1991, playing in a friendly against Germany. In total, he won 21 caps for his country, featuring and scoring in the penalty shootout defeat to Argentina at the 1998 World Cup finals. He could have won more caps for his country had it not been for his drinking problems which meant Terry Venables couldn’t trust on picking him during his battle off-the-field.
In 1991, Merson won his second league championship and enjoyed his best goalscoring season too, finding the back of the net 13 times. Arsenal became a cup specialist side in the early Premier League Years and Paul played a huge contribution in their domestic cup double of 1993, scoring in the League Cup final victory over Sheffield Wednesday. However, his dark side away from football was revealed in public in November 1994.
He revealed he had been battling addictions to alcohol, gambling and cocaine and was immediately placed into rehab. Two months later, he made a tearful return to public life, breaking down in a press conference organised by the FA. When he composed himself, he admitted: “My life was going nowhere. I now have a choice – I either go back to the booze, the gambling and the drugs or I go the other way.”
Following treatment, he returned to training and was back in first-team action for Arsenal in February 1995. It is a battle Paul has had to fight constantly for the past two decades. When at Portsmouth, his gambling problems relapsed which led to a spell in the Sporting Chance clinic, created by his former Arsenal teammate Tony Adams.
In the summer of 1997, Merson was surprisingly sold from Arsenal to Middlesbrough, who had just been relegated from the top-flight. Arsene Wenger had offered the midfielder a new two-year contract but preferring longer-term security and a better wage package, he decided to drop down a division and help Boro make an instant return to the Premier League. He was nicknamed “The Magic Man” by supporters as the Teesiders earned promotion, ending second to Nottingham Forest in the final standings.
After three games of Middlesbrough’s return to the Premier League spotlight, he claimed homesickness was the reason for a return to the south of the country. With money to spend after the departure of Dwight Yorke to Manchester United, John Gregory bought Merson to Aston Villa in September 1998. He scored in his opening two home matches for the club and played a key role in Villa’s run to the FA Cup final in 2000 which they ended up losing 1-0 to Chelsea. In total, he made 101 Premier League appearances for the Villans, scoring 18 times. This was to be his final spell in the Premier League.
After playing an instrumental role in Portsmouth’s return to the top-flight in the summer of 2003, he elected to move to Walsall so he could be closer to his family. When Colin Lee was sacked in February 2004, Merson was thrown into the managerial spotlight but couldn’t prevent the club being relegated from Division One. After failing to launch a sustained promotion bid in League One, he was sacked in February 2006 and after two part-time matches for Tamworth, announced his retirement from playing a month later.
Since his retirement, Paul has moved into media, working for Sky Sports, co-hosting The Fantasy Football Club and working on Gillette Soccer Saturday. He also writes a regular column for The Daily Star newspaper.