Football / Coca-Cola Cup Focus: Merson shows mettle by working on weaknesses: He could have gone off the rails, but now he mans the engine room. Trevor Haylett reports

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AT ONE time the prospect of Lorraine Merson heading off to the labour ward in the week of a big game would have sent George Graham into paroxysms of panic. The Arsenal manager could be forgiven a concern that the new father would over-indulge at the ceremonial head-wetting.

There is nothing unique about a young footballer enjoying a glassful and at one time Paul Merson did it better than most - just as, on the pitch, he is wont to do most things better than most. His was a career that could have gone to waste almost before it had begun, but happily for all concerned both Graham's lectures and the fines hit home, and the prediction made to Fred Merson that his son would one day 'walk out at Wembley for Arsenal and play for England' is coming true.

With time came maturity, marriage and then fatherhood which yesterday made Paul a Dad for the second time with the arrival, 12 days late, of baby Ben. And with stability at home came the flowering of an attacking talent so versatile that he never knows what role he will be asked to perform from one game to the next.

This time the 'next' happens to be a special occasion, tomorrow's Coca- Cola Cup final against Sheffield Wednesday. Alongside Ian Wright 'Mers' is the man Yorkshire will fear most but until the five o'clock start they will not know whether he will be at left-midfield, right-midfield, centre-midfield or more likely in the 'hole' just behind the strikers.

Such versatility could be at the cost of a regular place with England, even though the manager, Graham Taylor, says having him around is like picking 'four players'. He says he is 'happy' to get a game anywhere for Arsenal, but the preference is for the 'hole'.

For this observer, the Gunners never look more fluent or formidable than when Merson is operating just behind the strikers providing the bullets for Wright, Smith and Campbell, or twisting defenders first this way and then that or breaking forward to unleash the kind of subtle chip or swerving missile without which Arsenal would not have survived in the fourth round of the FA Cup against Leeds.

The memory of his performance in that position against Coventry in November, which enabled Arsenal to head the Premier League for the first and only time this season, is clouded by their mystifying fall, playing their way instead to knock-out prominence with the FA Cup final providing the opportunity for tomorrow's defeated team to claim spectacular revenge.

Inconsistency, a common Highbury refrain this term, is to blame for this season of contrasts, according to Merson, who adds that while the defence has performed well, the forward players 'apart from Wrightie' have not scored enough goals. 'We are in two finals but I can speak for all the lads when I say that we would rather be 10 points ahead in the League,' he said.

'That is the medal players prize most of all. When you think that Bryan Robson is still trying for one it shows how hard they are to come by. Two cups would be nice but the League is what everyone is aiming for in August.'

It is a fair bet that at some stage tomorrow afternoon Arsenal will have cause again to thank the persistence of their scout, Bill Graves, who refused to leave the Merson home until he had the 14-year-old's signature on schoolboy forms. It was a situation that called on all his powers of persuasion because there were close family links with Watford and Vicarage Road was where the youngster was leaning.

'I went round the house at 7.30 and it wasn't until 3am that I could leave with the job done,' the notable Arsenal starfinder said. 'A couple of times Paul went upstairs to bed saying he had not made up his mind and I went and brought him down again.

'When I eventually got home my wife said she had been phoning the hospital and police station because she thought something had happened to me. It was worth all the hassle. As a boy, Paul's first touch was outstanding and he obviously had an eye for goal.'

Despite the preference for League acclaim, a double Wembley success - make that a triple triumph with the FA Cup semi-final defeat of Tottenham - would be a happy alternative for Arsenal not to mention a unique achievement. It would also enable Merson to give full rein to his new celebration routine, which has him simulating the downing of two pints of the amber stuff in front of his supporters.

'It was something Gazza did when Tottenham beat us at Wembley two years ago and I thought it would be neat to do the same,' he explained. 'The fans enjoyed it and I did it again at Ipswich last week when I scored the winner. Anything that gives the fans a laugh has to be good. When I had my disciplinary problems at the club, they seemed to sympathise and take to me.

'I was only doing the things that all young lads do. Unfortunately it proved pretty costly and one season I was docked eight weeks wages for drink-driving, a fight in the pub and drinking before a game. At one stage I was going to pack the game in because I was doing nobody any good but luckily my Dad soon put me straight. Now all that's in the past. When you have children you have to settle down.

'At the start of the season I was overweight and went on a fitness programme for three or four months. The week before the Tottenham game we were given two days off but I only had one. When I'm bored I eat and I would have blown up if I had not come in for extra work.

'I'm mad on crisps and can go through five or six packets in front of the telly. Monster Munchies are my favourite. I'm also partial to diet Coke. It is supposed to be good for you but not when you drink six cans a night as I'm tempted to do.'

Nice one, Mers. A plug for the sponsors will guarantee him their vote as man of the match tomorrow even before a ball is kicked.

(Photograph omitted)