'The '89 title was a JFK moment: everyone remembers where they were' – Paul Merson

'The '89 title was a JFK moment: everyone remembers where they were' – Paul Merson
(Image credit: Getty Images)

We all think of Manchester United’s ‘Class of ’92’ as the pinnacle of English football youth setups, but Arsenal in the ’80s also produced many great young players. How good was it to come through at Highbury?
Oh, it was phenomenal. Tony Adams, David Rocastle, Mickey Thomas, Niall Quinn, Martin Keown. All internationals. I was one of those, though, who didn’t think I was good enough. Those other guys had broken through before me but I was touch and go, and if I’m honest I probably didn’t think I was up to it. Because of the doubt in my mind, I didn’t really enjoy it. I was too small for an apprenticeship, and the government paid my way with the Youth Training Scheme. Eventually Don Howe and the first team needed a few youth-teamers, and I’d get sent over. Strangely, I felt more comfortable at that level. The senior players seemed to like me. Charlie Nicholas, Kenny Sansom, that lot – they thought I was good, I got more secure and it went on from there. 

The peak for that generation came in 1989 and the title-clinching victory at Liverpool. What does that night mean to you?
It’s a JFK moment in football, isn’t it? If you’re old enough, you’ll know where you were that night. I don’t care if you support Manchester United or Accrington Stanley, you remember. Now, I was directly involved and it just passed me by. I remember very little of it. The game was a blur and as soon as it finished, all I was concerned about was how many beers I was going to get onto that coach back to London. That’s how life was then. It was never about the moment. It’s brilliant that I can look back on it today and appreciate it, but at the time? No, it was a blur.     

How important was George Graham to you as a young footballer?
George made it all possible. He taught us all so much and made me work hard – my god, we had to work. But without him, we don’t win that league title in 1989. I didn’t give us a chance at Anfield and I doubt most of the other lads did either, but George tweaked the team tactically with three centre-backs and it worked. The 1991 team was even better – we had the same work ethic but there was plenty of flair. That team isn’t spoken about enough because of 1989, but what a team. We only lost one league match, at Chelsea, and only because we had no centre-backs fit that day. Proper team. 

‘The Tuesday Club’ at Highbury still holds a fascination. Health aside, how important was the drinking culture in those days?
All the clubs were at it back then – the very best. Liverpool and Manchester United were competitive about who drank the most! The managers were aware what it did for team spirit, and encouraged it. We’d run through brick walls for each other and it was because of those sessions. George used to take us to Marbella three times a year for that reason. If there had been smartphones around, that just isn’t happening! But George was clever and he knew.

'The '89 title was a JFK moment: everyone remembers where they were' – Paul Merson

'At Arsenal, we'd run through brick walls for each other' (Image credit: Getty Images)

Football embraced lad culture in the early ’90s. When you look at that image of you mimicking downing pints, what do you think?
You know what, I sign that picture more than any other and I cringe, but that’s how it was – I played football and then went to the pub. It wasn’t great, but I do think fans everywhere kind of liked me because of it. They saw that I was one of them, and I never took any stick from anyone. I was a normal guy, I just happened to be playing football. I was never in a wine bar, I was drinking pints in the pub. George used to tell me, “Who you are, what you are and what you represent.” I didn’t get it. I was a professional footballer and I represented one of the biggest clubs in the country, but it was only in my 50s that I got it. 

How do you view your international career?
I’m proud of 21 my caps, but I never took my club form to England. I did play at a World Cup while I was in the First Division, which is pretty impressive, but if I think about it and what I was doing during my career, to even be picked by England warrants a knighthood! I mean, I’d be in a crack house, and people would walk in, notice me and double take before going off thinking, ‘No, it can’t be...’ To play for England at the same time, not many could do that. 

Why did you leave Arsenal in 1997?
They did offer me a new contract but it came down to money. Middlesbrough offered me fortunes and I had my addictions, so couldn’t turn that down. Arsenal weren’t even paying Dennis Bergkamp what Boro paid me to play for them in the second tier. My brain couldn’t say no to the cash. I learned over time that it isn’t about the money, but I was a gambler and had an addiction to feed. Having said all that, I loved playing there – talk about people loving their football. 

Your game did appear to flourish further away from Arsenal, though…
People don’t understand when you’re playing for clubs like The Arsenal, you’re under severe pressure every single week. But at Boro, then Villa and Portsmouth, I felt that football was my release from life’s other pressures – the addictions – and so I played with freedom. The truth is even if a trick I tried didn’t come off, I knew I was playing the following week. I felt safe and enjoyed my football a lot more.

'The '89 title was a JFK moment: everyone remembers where they were' – Paul Merson

Paul Merson played just over a season for Middlesbrough after leaving Arsenal in 1997 (Image credit: Getty Images)

You shared a house with Paul Gascoigne during your time at Middlesbrough. A nice, quiet room-mate?
Oh yeah, slippers and Ovaltine every night! [Laughs] No, Gazza was just Gazza. He didn’t like wearing clothes indoors – he’d come in, take everything off and sit down on the sofa. No one would sit on the sofa after him, I can tell you. I look back now and it seemed like madness, but we had a right laugh. 

'The '89 title was a JFK moment: everyone remembers where they were' – Paul Merson

Living with Gazza: 'It was slippers and Ovaltine every night' (Image credit: Getty Images)

How much do you love football?
My little boy is six and I love seeing him play. The game is everything to me, I can’t talk about much else. I’ll sit down and talk football with anybody and back myself. 

Paul’s book, ‘Hooked’, is out now, published by Headline

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