Paul Merson – Former Arsenal, Aston Villa and England Footballer.
Born in London, Paul Merson started his career at Arsenal, joining the club as an apprentice in 1984. After a stint at Brentford, he made his debut for the Gunners in November 1986, and gradually established himself in George Graham’s successful Arsenal side of the late 1980’s.
By the 1988-89 season Paul Merson was a regular on the right wing, at the end of which Arsenal secured the First Division title. Merson scored ten times that season, made his debut for the England U21 side, and was voted PFA Young Player of the Year.
Arsenal bagged another league championship in 1991, both the FA Cup and League Cup in 1993 and the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994. Merson also made his debut for the full England side.
Merson’s career was put on the line in November 1994 when he admitted to being an alcoholic and cocaine addict. The Football Association arranged for Merson to undergo a three-month rehabilitation programme and he returned to the side in February 1995.
In 1995-96, Paul Merson remained a regular first team player under Arsenal’s new manager Bruce Rioch and continued to play regularly in 1996-97 following the appointment of Arsène Wenger. At the end of the 1996-97 Premiership campaign, in which Arsenal finished third, Merson was sold to relegated Middlesbrough in a £5 million deal – making him the most expensive player ever signed by a non-Premiership club. In total Merson played 425 times for Arsenal, scoring 99 goals.
Paul Merson was a key player for Middlesbrough’s promotion success as Division One runners-up in 1997-98. Merson also held the distinction of being the only player in England’s 1998 World Cup squad not to play for a top flight club. In the 98’ World Cup he played in England’s famous second round match against Argentina, scoring in the penalty shootout.
In the autumn of 1998, Merson was sold to Aston Villa for £6.75 million. He quickly established himself as a fan’s favourite due to his creative and flamboyant brand of football. He remained at the club for nearly five years, helping them reach the 2000 FA Cup final, before he was finally given a free transfer at the end of the 2001-02 season. Merson signed for Division One club Portsmouth, and was instrumental in the club’s promotion to the Premiership in 2002-03.
In the summer of 2003, Merson moved to Division One side Walsall.
In February 2004, he admitted himself to the Sierra Tucson Clinic in Arizona to seek help for his gambling addiction, and missed several key games whilst Walsall slipped into the relegation zone. A couple of months after his return, Merson was quickly thrown into the manager’s spot at Walsall following Colin Lee’s sacking. Merson lead a gallant bid to retain Division One status, but was hindered by a harsh last minute penalty against Crystal Palace, and eventually relegated after a 3-2 victory against Rotherham United. The following month, despite relegation, Merson was rewarded with the manager’s job on a permanent basis.
In 2004-05 Walsall slipped close to a second consecutive relegation. Merson responded by making several key signings on transfer deadline day. Merson’s side went undefeated during May 2005, securing League One status for another year.
Paul Merson was unable to lift Walsall out of the relegation zone during the 2005/06 season, and with the club in 19th place, was sacked. After a short spell at Conference club Tamworth, Merson announced his retirement in March 2006.