– Mikey Mumford contributed with this report
Former Arsenal and England ace Paul Merson was a guest speaker at Lincoln City’s sportsman’s dinner on Wednesday, February 16th.
Over 100 people crammed into the Trust Suite inside Sincil Bank where Merson shared the highs and lows of his long and illustrious football career.
The Sky Sports pundit spoke openly about his previous addictions with gambling and alcohol during a career which spanned 21 years.
A member of Glenn Hoddle’s World Cup squad at France 98, Merson told of the moments leading up to his penalty kick in the last 16 shootout against Argentina.
“I was lucky enough to come on in the game when Beckham got sent off against Argentina. I played most of the second half, all of extra time, and when it got to the penalties Glenn came on and said Incey, Batty, Shearer, Merse penalties.
“So I’m on the halfway (line) about to take a penalty in the World Cup against Argentina and Glenn Hoddle’s seen me petrified, and he come [sic] up to me, and he used to do this thing with his hand, and he put it on my chest and said you will not miss.
“I put the ball on the spot and knew I couldn’t miss. Glenn had told me I was going to score. Luckily enough, I scored but I look back now and think if Ince and Batty were as scatty as me we would have won the World Cup.”
During his time at boyhood club Arsenal, where he won the league championship and FA Cup, Merson singled out Dennis Bergkamp as the best player he had ever played with and George Graham as the ultimate boss.
He said: “Dennis was an absolute genius with a football and George was one of the best managers to play under, he was that good.”
But off the field he hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons when he admitted a gambling problem and to being an alcoholic and drug user.
“When I was at Middlesbrough, there was me, my brother, Paul Gascoigne and his best mate Jimmy ‘Five Bellies’ [Gardner] all living together and we would send my brother round to the off license to buy loads of red wine and sleeping tablets.
“We sat in the same seats every night and it was a competition to see who could stay awake the longest.”
As soon as Merson called time on his playing career in 2006, he was quickly thrown into the dugout as manager League One side Walsall.
His influence could not save the Saddlers from relegation in his first season however and, despite slipping into the fourth tier of English football, Merson was rewarded with the job on a permanent basis.
League Two proved to be no easy task though and he was given the boot after a poor run of results. Merson stressed the difficulties of being a manager.
He said: “It is very hard. A friend of mine, Paul Jewell, is manager of Ipswich now. I rang him the other day at 10pm and he text me and said he was still at work, so there’s not enough hours in the day, and for all managers it’s very difficult [in that sense].”
Joining as an apprentice in 1984, the London-born midfielder knows just what it is like to come through the ranks at Arsenal. Merson has high hopes for the latest young Gunner to make his mark at the Emirates – Jack Wilshere.
“He could be one of the best players in world football. The sky’s his limit now. It’s just how he conducts himself off the pitch and, if he conducts himself okay and he’s lucky with injuries, he’s going to be one of the best players England has seen for a long, long time.”
Reflecting on his current role as a Sky Sports pundit on Gillette Soccer Special, Merson said he enjoys every minute of being on the panel.
“I love my job and I’m very grateful working for Sky. I couldn’t wish for a better job. How many people in the world get up in the morning and enjoy what they’re doing? I’m grateful for that.
When asked if he had anything else in the pipeline apart from his work in the media, he giggled: “I’ve got a book coming out in April which should be fun. But I love my job and I do a couple of these [after dinner speeches] every now and again, so it’s nice.”Tweet