Paul Merson: One-on-One

Arsenal legend, befuddled pundit and all-round colourful character Paul Merson answers FourFourTwo readers' questions with refreshing honesty in November 2006.

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They say that if you remember the 1960s, you weren't really there. The same is true of Paul Merson's career: if you remember it clearly, you certainly weren't Paul Merson. "My memory can be sketchy," admits the former Arsenal, Middlesbrough, Villa, Pompey and Walsall man as we meet in a Waterloo hotel. "I wish I'd kept a diary, because so much happened so fast."

Merson's memory may occasionally falter after years battling drink and drugs, but his enthusiasm and good humour never do. Despite FourFourTwo occupying the final slot in five hours of non-stop interviews, he is relentlessly good company, and disarmingly candid about his shortcomings. As he tears into tea and biscuits with the same gusto with which he used to destroy defences, we begin.

Who did you pretend to be in the playground?
Heidi, Cirencester
Ray Wilkins was always my hero. I was a Chelsea fan when I was growing up, and Butch was the main man at Stamford Bridge back then. I've met him a few times since – we were on A Question of Sport together, and he knows he was my idol. He's sick of me telling him, especially when I've had a drink.

You were 1989's Young Player of the Year. Do you think you underachieved after that?
Chris Jones, Bury
It was a massive thing to win, especially with all your peers voting for you. I agree that I could've gone on and done better, maybe got more caps for England. But I did OK. I played on for Arsenal, won trophies, got promotion with Boro, got to the Carling Cup Final, got promoted with Portsmouth, got to the FA Cup Final with Villa, won their Player of the Year a few times on the trot. Oh, and then I went to Walsall and got relegated twice in three years and sacked [laughs]. But take that away, I did alright. It just ended on a f*cking low [laughs].

Anfield, May 1989: How mental was that?
Jimmy Grundy, Highbury
It'll never happen again like that, will it? It was absolutely phenomenal. Playing at Anfield on the last day in '89, in front of the Kop, having to win by two goals to win the league. The only down side was that by the time we got back to London, it was too late to go out. It was brilliant mayhem on the bus on the way home, though.

What were your best and worst moments as an Arsenal player?
Gooner Harris, London
I liked the Liverpool '89 thing, but my best moment would have been beating Tottenham in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley [1993], and my worst moment would have been losing to Tottenham in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley [1991]. I don't like Tottenham.

What were you thinking when Nayim lobbed David Seaman from the half-way line in '95? What did you say to Spunky afterwards?
Nick McAdams, via e-mail
I thought it was a goal straightaway. We didn't need to say anything. David knew it was his fault – you can't get beaten from that distance. But he was the best keeper I ever played with.

Surely you regret leaving Arsenal?
Alex Griffiths, Sydney
Definitely, but I was gambling a lot at the time and the move to Boro doubled my wages. But the grass isn't always greener. I regretted it within a month. Arsenal was a phenomenal club. Words can't explain how well run it was.

What's the biggest b*llocking you ever had?
Franny Jones, Walthamstow
When people started shouting at me, I'd just switch off: "Yeah, right, whatever." I'd imagine that the biggest b*llocking I ever got was off George Graham. I got the hairdryer treatment from him many a time. But I'm a switcher-offer. When managers lose the plot you know that they're forgetting what they're saying anyway, because they're going mad.

A pal of mine used to run schools football in Ealing. A couple of weeks before the end-of-season awards, you'd call him off your own back and offer to present them. Why are so few footballers like that?
Ted, Ealing
I don't know – I just try to give something back. It's like when you get off the coach at a match and there are kids waiting for you. I'd always sign autographs and people would say, "It's good that you're doing this." But I remember being a kid, wanting autographs. I'll never turn them down because it costs nothing. I'll probably have a thousand people on the phone wanting things now!

Who was the best player you played with and against?
Tom Welch, Swindon
Paolo Maldini was the best I've faced. He had pace and read the game so well. We played against Milan in the 1994 Super Cup. We lost 2-0 and I didn't get a kick. Dennis Bergkamp was the best I played with. He made the people around him look good. He sees everything. He's a great guy too.

With hindsight, do you look back on that awful perm you had and think, "What a wally"?
Red Clive, via e-mail
I thought you were gonna say "w*nker" [laughs]. It went wrong. I had it done on Baker Street opposite the Globe pub. I think the barber had just come out of there!

Like Matt le Tissier, you had more ability than most, but England didn't seem to get the best out of you. Why?
Hugh Harrison, Lincoln
That's probably true. It might be because I was drinking so heavily; if I hadn't, I could've nicked myself another 20-odd caps and done better for England. I blame myself; I don't blame the managers at all. But I was also competing for a position with Gazza, which didn't help. That's my excuse anyway – I don't know what Le Tiss's is!

Well, at least they have each other

What's the best heckle you've ever had?
Jo, via e-mail
I've never had many problems with fans. When I was playing against Barnet for Boro, they started calling me gay and chanting, "Where's your missus gone?" because we'd separated, all that bollocks. But generally I've been lucky with the crowds – probably because I play along and have a laugh. If you rise to it, it makes it worse. I got called cokehead and crackhead, but they weren't calling me anything I wasn't.

Did the PFA help with your addictions?
Geoff Jones, Wapping
They were absolutely brilliant. In 1994, when I was in treatment, Gordon Taylor sent my wife flowers; it was a nice touch and she appreciated it. That said, when I went to Arizona a couple of years ago to get treated for gambling, they weren't helpful at all. [FFT: Should we worry about stories of Owen and Rooney betting huge sums?] Well, it's a just a laugh for them at the moment. If you're on £70,000 a week you can afford to lose some of it. It's when you're betting more than you earn that you're in trouble.

What's your biggest single win and loss from gambling?
Swanny, Peterborough
I won £54,000 on a bet, and I've lost £30,000 on a single bet. It would have been on the horses. But I don't bet now – I don't enjoy it.

What's the drunkest you've ever been on a football pitch?
Justin Jellico, North London
It was New Year's Day, away to Wimbledon. George Graham named the team the day before and I was sub, so I thought I wouldn't play. Bad mistake. There was a party in the hotel, so I got stuck in. I was spewing up all morning. George knew, and he put me on with 10 minutes to go, to embarrass me. I went through the motions and did OK.

How much did football have to do with your problems? Or do you think you would have had them whatever your job?
Ted Riley, Clapham
I'd have had a drink problem whatever my job was. It would have been worse if I'd not been a footballer – in fact, I'd have been working in a bar in Tenerife.

What's the best cure for a hangover?
Phoebe Ratcliffe, San Jose
Another drink. Although to be fair, I just didn't get hangovers. I used to say that if I'd ever got up with a hangover and thought "I'll never do that again," I probably would've stopped drinking a lot earlier. My wife was amazed when I felt OK in the morning.

Who do you call on a bad day?
Sue Izzard, Southampton
My ex-wife. She's still my best friend.

Did you know your name is an anagram of 'Ma, one Slurp'?
Norman, Accrington
Funny you should say that... no! [laughs]

The public are horrified by drug abuse, but alcoholism is still considered a bit of a laugh. How harmful is this?
Paul Burton, London
I try not to get involved. Everybody's different. Most people can have a bottle of wine and leave half of it – I don't know how – but alcohol is one of the biggest killers. It's underestimated because people die from alcohol abuse, but on the death certificate they'll put down cirrhosis or whatever.

Do you own any action figures or Panini stickers of yourself?
Matt, via e-mail
No, no, no [laughs]. My kids do. They used to collect stickers, and they'd open the pack and be saying "Look, I've got daddy!" Then they'd slap the stickers on me. That was weird. The kids have got shirts on their walls and all that, but I don't keep anything.

Are there any teams you'd liked to have played for but didn't?
Nick McDougall, via e-mail
Not really. When I was 18 Anderlecht wanted me, and Rangers wanted me at one point, but I have no regrets. AC Milan might have been good. But then, I can just about talk English, and there's the whole language thing – it would be hard work and life's too short. It's also tough on the family if you go abroad. Even though I supported Chelsea, and had a chance to go there, I went to Arsenal. Chelsea were s*it back then.

That's what you get for turning down Chelsea, Merse

Which away fans did you like and dislike the most?
Roy Bhalla, Dollis Hill
I didn't have a problem with many fans. Forest were good: they always had fun and were great for a laugh. They appreciated me for some reason! And I remember West Brom fans applauding me off once when I had a good game. I didn't dislike any fans, although I got some pretty nasty abuse at Barnet. That probably only stands out because the ground was so empty I could hear everything this one fella was yelling at me!

Who's the biggest divvy: Glenn Hoddle or Graham Taylor?
Bob, via e-mail
[Pauses] I still see both of them around. I played a game the other day and Glenn was managing us. And I see Graham Taylor in Waitrose. But Graham got rid of me at Villa: divvy. I was too big a fish for him. Although he was honest enough about it.

What really happened when you went to see Eileen Drewery?
Oliver Smith, Leeds
Actually, I found her pretty helpful. It's the same wherever you go. I've been to shrinks, and if you go in and see them open-minded, they can help. If you go in with the attitude of 'B*llocks to this' then they can't. All these things differ. I went to marriage guidance once and it made things worse for me – other people will have some success with that kind of stuff. It's all swings and roundabouts.

You scored a penalty in the 1998 World Cup shootout against Argentina but we still lost. Why do England always lose?
Brian Carroll, Luton
Nerves. I don't know why people practise because it ain't the same in a million years. When [Watford boss Aidy] Boothroyd was getting his team to practise penalties before the play-offs last season, I thought, what's the point? There's no pressure in practice.

I could tell who was going to miss the World Cup penalties. I'd have put my life on Ronaldo scoring, because he was so confident he was almost laughing. I think England have so much expectation piled on them that the pressure becomes unbearable. Those Portuguese players knew they would be returning home heroes even if they lost, so the pressure was much less on them.

Your season at Pompey was astonishing. Thanks for all the memories, but did it really rank with the best in your career?
Steve Morgan, via e-mail
It was one of the best, because Pompey were really sh*t before that season! They were fifth from bottom every year before that. Then Harry [Redknapp] got a team together and it was phenomenal. The fans were unreal – so passionate. I've never seen anything like it. We were smashing teams left, right and centre, getting standing ovations everywhere. It's a wonderful feeling when a team that has been underachieving suddenly goes on a roll. I still get letters from Pompey fans.

Des 'n' Paul, still going strong in 2002 with a combined age of 70

How was the Walsall experience? Would you give it another go?
Johnny Sinclair, Walsall
I wouldn't give it another go, no. If you've got no money and can't buy players, it really is very hard. And the [Walsall] fans haven't got a clue. I'm not being disrespectful, but they think they should be somewhere they ain't – the Championship – and they've only been there three times in 100 years. And if you haven't got money, beggars can't be choosers. You're going somewhere they are going to lump the ball about, and I don't believe in that. And I now know how George felt when he had to worry about me every day. Being a player is much easier.

As a manager, did it frustrate you that players didn't have your ability?
Mark Wood, Rainford
Never. It's only frustrating when you have a player that's lazy and doesn't want to improve the skills he's got. I liked trying to bring on youngsters and help them develop a lot – that was one side of management that I really enjoyed.

Who influenced your managerial style more, Arsene Wenger or George Graham?
Graham Adams, Derby
Neither of them got sacked, did they? [Laughs] You'd like to work like Arsene Wenger, but if you haven't got Arsene Wenger's attributes, you can't. And you can't work like George any more, because football has moved on. He ruled with an iron rod, but if you did that now, players would just say "B*llocks to it, I'm leaving." So you've got to do it your own way, especially in the lower leagues.

What have you been up to since Walsall?
Guy Merchant, via e-mail
I've been putting everything into the Virtual Soccer Academy [DVD football tuition for kids] because it's a great idea. I've invested some of my own money into it. And I'll hopefully be doing a lot more TV work – I love it. It's better than having 3,000 fans behind you calling you a w*nker, like you do as a manager. It was only my dad who wasn't calling me a w*nker. I still won't forgive my mum [laughs].

What's the most embarrassing thing you've done on a football pitch?
Johnno Everly, via e-mail
Losing to Slough in the FA Cup with Walsall in 2004, because they were bad. I played in that game. I was about to start reeling off excuses – "It was a bobbly pitch, the sun was setting..." – but I won't even go there [laughs]. We just weren't good enough on the day.

Tamworth: what happened?
Mike, Tamworth
I went because my mate Mark Cooper was the manager over there. I hadn't played for a while and in the first game we were one down within a minute. I thought "What am I doing here?" The next game we lost 5-0 against Grays. After that, I thought "That's it for me." So I retired from playing.

Are you still really into American football?
Paul Evans, Cardiff
Yeah, I love it – I watch it every week during the season. My brother is very into it too. I've flown over to see the New York Giants, but my favourite team is the New England Patriots, because they've got England in the name.

Teams quite often struggle during their first year in a new stadium. How do you think Arsenal will get on this season?
Damien Charles, Oxford
It happened to Ajax when they moved, and it happened when Arsenal started playing Champions League games at Wembley, didn't it? I guess everything is new and unfamiliar, and everyone wants to have a go at you in a new ground. Everyone will be raising their game. But it'll surprise me if they struggle. I really like the new stadium, and if Arsenal want to keep up with Chelsea and Man United, the move had to happen.

What's your favourite house track?
Romford Pele, via e-mail
House? I don't listen to that sh*te. Are the Happy Mondays house? I don't mind them. Nah, not my scene. We had Neil Diamond on the stereo on the way down here. Classic stuff. My favourite is Love on the Rocks – I'm so used to it! And that other one, Sweet Caroline [bursts into tuneless version of said classic, including parped horn section].

Has money ruined the English game, with players having no loyalty anymore?
Sean Ryan, via e-mail
It's not the players' fault. They only ask for the money they know they can get. If clubs offer huge salaries, you'd be daft not to take them, wouldn't you? The gaps are so big now, though. Chelsea walked the league last year, and they've just bought the best midfielder in the world and one of the best forwards. What chance has anyone else got? But it's not controlled by the players.

Cheese or chocolate?
Ray Dolan, via e-mail
Chocolate. Cheese gives you nightmares. I'm not a massive chocolate lover, but I like a Boost. I used to think it worked for me before a match.

Why did you fall out with Stan Collymore?
Trevor Roberts, Leicester
Who says that? I'm not sure where Trevor's got that from. I didn't really have that much to do with Stan. Stan may have said in his book that I wasn't that helpful when he was having problems, but I can't be expected to look after everyone. I was struggling to look after myself at that time.

Interview: Nick Moore. Portrait: Steve Orino. From the November 2006 issue of FourFourTwo.