few minutes before Paul Merson tells the surreal story which makes him cry, in a beautiful but broken memory, he looks at me intently. “It’s been 36 years of pure madness,” Merson says as he reflects on the gambling disorder which, coupled with alcoholism and a brief but ruinous addiction to cocaine, has scarred his life.
Merson won two league titles and three cups with Arsenal, while playing some visionary football which he produced again for Aston Villa. He won 21 caps for England, played in the 1998 World Cup and, now, at the age of 53, he is a much-loved, or often cruelly mocked, member of Sky Sports’ Saturday Soccer panel alongside his close friend Jeff Stelling.
But, as Merson makes plain in his endearingly candid way, he has an illness above all else. He has lost more than £7m to betting companies but, as he stresses, the real cost has nothing to do with money. “If someone lived in my head they would think: ‘How did you even get through those 36 years?’ People go: ‘Oh, you lost all that money.’ But the money is irrelevant.’ You lose time. Time just goes and that breaks my heart more than anything.
“People ask: ‘What was it like when you won so much at Arsenal and played for England? I don’t know. All I remember was winning the league at Portsmouth. I wasn’t drinking, I wasn’t gambling too much and I sucked it in. I remember one game we played Millwall away [in March 2003]. Portsmouth and Millwall don’t like each other and so none of our fans were allowed in. I also remember having 30 grand, in cash, to give to someone after the game.”
Even if this was one of his less wasteful years, Merson was still so lost in his gambling maze that paying off £30,000 in bad debts remained a routine problem. Harry Redknapp, his manager at Portsmouth, was taken aback. When they couldn’t lock the away dressing room at Millwall, Redknapp had to look after Merson’s possessions. “Harry said: ‘What is it, Merse? A watch?’ I said: ‘No, I’ve got some money.’ Harry shoved 30 grand down his big, baggy tracksuit bottoms.
“I went out and had the best game of my career. We were 5-0 up and I got a standing ovation from Millwall fans with five minutes to go. Then, in the car park, this 75-year-old geezer comes up to me: ‘I just want to say, Merson, I’ve been coming to the Den 60-odd years and I’ve never seen what I seen today. We’ve never had a standing ovation for an opposition player.’”
Merson pauses as he begins to cry. He shakes his head. “It was…” The words are choked by his tears. He tries again. “It was…” His mouth crumples, and I apologise. “No, don’t worry,” Merson manages to say.
It sounds like he played beautiful football that afternoon? “Yeah,” he says, wiping his eyes. “But the addiction kills you. There should have been more of them good times. I live quite a nice life now but I wouldn’t wish this on anybody in the whole world. It’s a horrible addiction. Even your footballing career, no matter how great it was, passes you by.
“I’ve only got some memories of the really good times. I remember another standing ovation I got at Maine Road with Villa with five minutes to go. But at the time, I’m walking off the pitch like: ‘God, let’s get changed, let’s fucking get going. I want a bet now – or a drink.’ It takes over your life. It’s a hard and draining illness.” Football offered Merson a refuge. “The only time I lived in the moment,” he says, “was playing football.”
In Merson’s raw and sometimes harrowing new book, which is also full of pathos, he describes how he saw space and clarity on the pitch. He compares this ability to a chess prodigy plotting a strategy four or five moves ahead. But in real life he saw little but blurring chaos. He suggests that his brain is “wired differently. It helped me on the pitch. Ask the lads at Arsenal, or anywhere I played. It drove them up the wall. They would complain I was always aiming for the glory ball. It was like my gambling, my drinking, my drugging. It was risk-taking. I didn’t see fear. I could do it and I kept on doing it.
“People talk about being brave on the football pitch. Being brave and clever for me is getting the ball and putting your head up and trying to open up the game. Glenn Hoddle always said: ‘See the picture’. Some players have all the skill in the world, but they can’t see that picture. I could. I’m not saying it happened all the time. I had some shocking games. But I was so much better in football than life.”