"My goal is to play for England again," he said on that dark December afternoon. Then he went off to a rehabilitation clinic. Three demons, rather than three lions, were on his mind.
Yesterday, in that same room, Glenn Hoddle welcomed Merson back into the England fold by including him in the squad to meet Poland, at Wembley, on 9 October. Sitting at the same dais Merson had occupied Hoddle declared: "This is purely a football decision. It is not a sympathy vote, it has nothing to do with other things. Paul has come back this season. He is leaner than ever and playing extremely well."
Hoddle also called up Dominic Matteo, of Liverpool, for the first time. David Platt is recalled after injury, while Ian Wright's international hopes are resurrected with a place on the standby list. Tony Adams is omitted - Hoddle felt he was not fully fit and had enough to worry about at present.
Arsenal's other recovering alcoholic is substantially further along the road of recovery and a recall had been suggested. Merson, though, had not been relying on it. True, he was so nervous yesterday he went out to play tennis rather than listen to the radio or wait for the telephone to ring. But he had also booked a holiday in New York for next weekend. "It was a surprise for Lorraine [his wife]," Merson said. "Now the surprise is that we are not going."
Now the raucous atmosphere of New York will have to be passed over for the calm of Bisham Abbey. Merson will not mind, it is his first involvement with England since he won the last of his 14 caps in Terry Venables' second match, the 5-0 win over Greece in May 1984.
"People needs goals when they are going through hard times," Hoddle said of Merson's England ambitions. "I don't know if it is something you ever get over but he is certainly dealing with it at the moment."
After his confession Merson did not play for two months. He returned to a warm response from Arsenal fans and has gradually picked up. He is fitter, and more consistent, than at any time in his career and is scoring goals - four already this season.
Hoddle, who sees his best position as an offensive midfielder, said: "He is an example to other people, perhaps not in the public eye, to show you can overcome it. It is a credit to him and the people who stood by him at the FA, at Arsenal and people no longer at Arsenal like Bruce Rioch and Stewart Houston.
"It takes courage to come out, though you probably feel better afterwards. Like Tony Adams, he is no longer living a lie.
"I have spoken to Tony about not picking him - but not about his drink problem. It is not the sort of thing you talk about on the phone. We will talk face-to-face some time. A 100 per cent fit Tony Adams will certainly be to the fore of my mind but he is not fit yet and it would not be fair on him or his club."
Adams' team-mate, Wright, will be delighted at his recall, even as a standby. The 32-year-old has not played for England since being substituted against Romania almost two years ago. Although he has 20 caps, he has rarely played a whole match.
"I'm interested in talent, not age," Hoddle said. "I tried to buy him for Chelsea last year which I would not have done if I had thought he was over the hill."
Hoddle admitted he had also tried to sign Matteo, on loan, while manager at Swindon. He was rebuffed then. He may now reflect that being able to pick anyone he wants - as long as they are English - is one of the perks of being national coach.
That is, as long as their club judges them to be fit. Darren Anderton and Steve Stone are already missing, injured, from the last squad. Some of this one will be after the weekend cull. That is why, having dismissed the idea of standby players before the trip to Moldova, Hoddle has chosen eight of them. "I'm learning fast," he said.
The squad will meet up on Tuesday. Hoddle will then have a week with them - unlike Venables he does not intend to allow them to go home for the weekend. "Once they are there," he said with a steely eye, "they are on international duty."
n Richie Humphreys of Sheff- ield Wednesday has won a call-up to the England Under-21 squad. The 18- year-old striker scored three goals in the first four games of the season. He is joined by Liverpool's David Thompson, a 19-year-old elevated from the Under-18 side. James Scowcroft of Ipswich and Nigel Quashie of Queen's Park Rangers are the other newcomers.
ENGLAND UNDER-21 SQUAD (European Under-21 Championship v Poland, Molineux, 8 October): Day (Crystal Palace), Marshall (Norwich - on loan at Bournemouth), Rose (Arsenal), Newton (Charlton), Thatcher (Wimbledon), Scimeca (Aston Villa), Duberry (Chelsea), Carbon (Derby), Hall (Coventry), Ford (Leeds), Holland (Newcastle - on loan at Birmingham), Butt (Manchester Utd), Thompson (Liverpool), Eadie (Norwich), Humphreys (Sheffield Wednesday), Dyer (Crystal Palace), Heskey (Leicester), Scowcroft (Ipswich), Quashie (QPR), Branch (Everton), Morris (Chelsea).
Work pays for Matteo, page 24
World Cup Group Two v Poland
Wembley Stadium, 9 October
Player Age Caps Goals
Seaman (Arsenal) 33 30 0
I Walker (Tottenham) 24 2 0
James (Liverpool) 26 0 0
Southgate (A Villa) 26 10 0
Pearce (Nottm Forest) 34 71 5
G Neville (Man Utd) 21 15 0
Pallister (Man Utd) 31 21 0
Campbell (Tottenham) 22 2 0
Matteo (Liverpool) 22 0 0
Ince (Internazionale) 29 44 9
Gascoigne (Rangers) 28 24 2
Beckham (Man Utd) 21 1 0
McManaman (Liverpool) 24 15 0
Batty (Newcastle) 27 18 0
Player Age Caps Goals
Hinchcliffe (Everton) 27 1 0
Platt (Arsenal) 30 62 27
Merson (Arsenal) 28 14 1
Barmby (Middlesbrough) 22 10 3
Shearer (Newcastle) 26 28 11
Ferdinand (Newcastle) 29 10 4
Le Tissier (Southampton) 27 7 0
Sheringham (Tottenham) 30 20 4
Fowler (Liverpool) 21 5 0
Flowers (Blackburn), Howey (Newcastle), Draper (Aston Villa), Wilcox (Blackburn), A Wright (Aston Villa), I Wright (Arsenal), Lee (Newcastle), Redknapp (Liverpool).Reuse content