Fan's Eye view: No 218; Paul Merson

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The Independent Online
When it was reported that Paul Merson was to be sold to Middlesbrough, most Arsenal fans simply could not believe that the story was true. The first I knew of the transfer was via a phone call from a gleeful Tottenham supporter who clearly felt that Merson's departure was potentially as damaging to Arsenal as the loss of Teddy Sheringham was to Spurs.

Merson was the Arsenal player most coveted by Tottenham fans, his inventive skills more in keeping with Tottenham's traditions than Arsenal's. During his 11 years at Highbury, Merson had lit up many a dreary Arsenal performance. He was a match-winner. He could go past defenders, he could create goalscoring chances for others and he could score goals himself, many of them spectacular.

Moreover, Merson is Arsenal through and through. He may have supported Chelsea as a boy, but as far as Arsenal fans are concerned the Merse is one of their own. When he confessed his addictions to booze, gambling and cocaine two years ago, the club and the fans stood by him. Their faith was rewarded when Merson returned to peak form in the past two seasons.

Merson and Tony Adams are Arsenal men, the kind of players who keep the Gunners' legendary team spirit alive. So why did Arsene Wenger sell Merson? So far, the Arsenal manager's explanations have proved insufficient. Certainly, as Wenger stressed, pounds 4.5m is a lot of money for a 29-year-old, but surely Merson still has a few good years in him?

The sale of Merson is Wenger's first questionable decision as Arsenal manager. Until now, his transfer dealings have met with universal approval among Gunners fans. Wenger's first signing - Patrick Vieira from Milan - was rightly acclaimed as a masterstroke. Vieira is widely acknowledged as one of the strongest midfield players in the Premiership. Wenger has continued to buy wisely, strengthening the squad with a mixture of youth (Anelka, Upson, Boa Morte, Manninger) and experience (Garde, Overmars, Petit), but was it necessary to sell Merson? Wenger insists that there was no pressure from the Arsenal board to sell the player, so why do so?

If Arsenal are to challenge for the Premiership title this season they need the strongest squad possible and Merson was still among the better players at the club.

The sale of David Platt will have few Arsenal fans complaining. On the contrary, many will sigh with relief. Platt came as England captain, but has underachieved. Merson may have been outshone by Bergkamp last season, but he is still a better player than Platt.

Arsenal fans shed no tears when Wenger offloaded David Hillier, Eddie McGoldrick and Steve Morrow - mediocre footballers to a man. The Arsenal team had been full of such players during the latter part of George Graham's reign but Paul Merson was different. Merson, like Ian Wright, could win a game with one incisive piece of skill. It is conceivable that Arsenal have seen the best of Paul Merson, but if Wright can still perform to Premiership standard at 33, why not Merson?

Of course, if Arsenal win the Premiership next May, Paul Merson will not be missed. That's football, after all. Nobody pined for departed heroes like Anders Limpar or David Rocastle when the Gunners lifted three cups between 1993 and 1994. However, if Wenger's Arsenal fail to win a trophy this season, questions will be asked in the public houses around N5. Above all else, Arsenal fans may wonder: Where was the Merse when we needed him?