Paul Merson discusses struggles with drink and gambling
“I have bad days still,” Paul Merson tells me as we sit in a plush Farringdon office. “But those days are so, so, so outweighed by the better days… it’s so different.” For millions of football fans across the country, Merson has been a mainstay of their lives since the mid-Eighties, bursting on the scene as a youthful attacking midfielder with Arsenal, collecting a stack of domestic and international titles as he did, then taking to the pitch for the likes of Middlesborough, Aston Villa and Portsmouth. From there, he made the step from the stadium to the studio, enriching viewers’ Saturday afternoons with his insightful, and often gaffe-fuelled, appearances on Sky Sport’s Soccer Saturday. But Merson is also known for another reason: championing people into recovery.
Merson, the mercurial footballing talent crowned the then First Division’s best young player in 1989, has lost somewhere in the region of £7million to gambling. On top of that, some of his fledgling career’s best years came during a battle with alcohol and drug addiction.
To an outsider, Merson, who alongside the likes of Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, Perry Groves teamed up for the fabled Tuesday Club – the term coined for their notorious drinking sessions at Arsenal in the Nineties – would appear to have it all going for him.
England caps were stacking up and the acclaim his talents rightly translated into team and personal honours, including two league titles, an FA Cup and League Cup, as well as the European Cup Winners’ Cup — the last European trophy Arsenal claimed in 1994.
But underneath the surface, Merson was beginning to struggle.
Paul Merson opened up to Express.co.uk about his addiction
Paul Merson during Arsenal’s 1993 FA Cup semi-final win against Tottenham
“I knew I was one of the lads… I was one of the last ones to leave and come home (from a night out),” the 54-year-old tells Express.co.uk. “If anyone had a bet, I’d have the biggest bet.
“I never thought I was ill, I never knew what it was… now I know I had an illness. I wasn’t a bad person. I was always trying to be a good person, and be a Jack the Lad, but I had an illness from a young age that I didn’t know about.”
The Tuesday Club’s legacy is well documented. Then-manager of Arsenal, George Graham, would turn a blind eye to the shenanigans of the heavy drinking gang who met every Tuesday, as all players showed up on time and ready to play for training come Thursday.
Former player Ray Parlour described the drinking in his 2016 book The Romford Pele as being “relentless”, adding: “We were probably drinking too much but the enjoyment of it… was far too much fun to turn down.”
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Paul Merson with the 1993 League Cup and Man of the Match award
And so Merson just carried on. As long as he was playing well, he was happy — and so was his boss, though in 1990 Merson felt the wrath of Graham when he, Nigel Winterburn and two others were sent home from an Arsenal tour of Singapore due to being involved in a drinking session.
Merson is reflective when he recalls the sessions, admitting that at the time he didn’t know “if you don’t pick up the first drink you’re not going to get drunk”. He describes his alcoholism during his Arsenal years, which ended in 1997 when he made the surprise move down a division to ply his trade for Middlesborough, as binge drinking, which “was when I started drinking I did not know when I was ever going to stop”.
He continues: “But when I didn’t drink I was alright… one was too many, and one hundred was not enough. But I was a binge drinker in them days… it got to the stage at the end where I was drinking every day. I was a functional drunk and compulsive gambler.”
By 1994, Merson — who at the time was attempting to help England qualify for the World Cup — told the world of his cocaine addiction, entering an addiction unit for six weeks.
Paul Merson and his Arsenal colleagues celebrating the Division One title in 1989
Soon, his vices truly took hold and his life imploded in divorce and drink-driving convictions. This included in 2011, five years after his spell as Walsall manager had ended when he fell asleep at the wheel on the M40.
During the real depths of his addiction, while regularly splashing out millions to bookies, he was drinking as many as 35 pints a week, the striker once said. However, he never let that impact his desire to be match ready for Saturdays and the weekend kick-off.
While he is now years into his recovery, Merson remains determined to help out others who have been left grappling with addiction – whether that be alcohol, gambling, or drugs.
He said: “Today, I have a choice. 10 or 20 years ago I didn’t… I just thought I was a bad person, who just kept trying to get good. And when I got good I failed miserably again by going out and drinking and losing my money, and taking drugs. Now I know I have a choice. I’m an ill person who needs to get well, and if I stay well I’ll be alright.”
Paul Merson, Michael Owen and Rio Ferdinand play for England at France 98
It’s why Merson has teamed up with Recoverlution, an addiction help platform that connects and supports millions of people in recovery across the globe. The project offers those affected a safe space to continue their journies while giving them access to vital support networks and information that could prove key in ensuring they stay on the path they want to be on.
“This is impossible to do on your own,” Merson said of his own dependency battle. “Because in the end your addiction will draw you away on your own and you’ll be back doing the bad things you were doing before — like drinking, drugging or gambling.”
For Merson, it’s being able to access round-the-clock support that saw him take up the role as an ambassador for Recoverlution and his desire to ensure others can be helped.
He continued: “It doesn’t matter if you’re the most famous person in the world, or someone who has nothing, or someone who is a multi-millionaire: it will take you. And I think being somewhere you can get help 24/7 is so important and I am a massive believer in it.
“There’s no worse feeling in the world than going around living life not knowing that you are not well, and you just keep thinking you’re a bad person.”
Paul Merson spoke passionately about supporting others through their recoveries
Paul Merson celebrating with Portsmouth fans in 2003 when they were promoted to the Premier League
The footballer-turned-pundit, who appeared for England 21 times between 1991 and 1998, and his battles were placed emotionally under the microscope during ITV’s Harry’s Heroes, which saw Merson speak out about his addictions with former Arsenal teammate David Seaman.
His revelations included that he still voluntarily attends Alcoholics Anonymous, using his platform and experiences to help inspire and transform other people’s lives.
“At the start, you are probably embarrassed,” Merson says. “People get embarrassed that they’re an alcoholic or a drug addict or a compulsive gambler — there is nothing wrong with that.
“You are ill. But you probably want to stay anonymous to start with. It can be very nervous to walk into a room, full of people for the first time. To do that is so brave.”
Paul Merson speaking to Arsenal goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale in 2022
And so where is Merson’s recovery today?
“I try and live in the day… and I try and live a day at a time, and if I’m honest I think that’s the same case as everybody in the world,” he said. “I think you can be the richest person in the world or poorest person — but whoever grasps the day is the richest person in the world.
“Too many times we worry about yesterday, or we’re going to worry about what we’re going to do tomorrow and we waste the day.”
For more information on Recoverlution or for advice on addiction, visit here.