Football: Merson has his mind on right priority

Mike Rowbottom considers the twin challenges facing Arsenal's playmaker
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The Independent Online
Some time this weekend, Paul Merson may slip away from the England party gathered at Bisham Abbey to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

If he feels the need to do so, it will be with the complete support of the man who has recalled him to the national squad after nearly two years in the wilderness: Glenn Hoddle.

Merson, who has become an increasingly influential performer for Arsenal since his much-publicised break 21 months ago to gain treatment for alcohol, drug and gambling addiction, discussed his position with Hoddle soon after the England squad congregated in preparation for Wednesday's World Cup qualifier against Poland.

"There was no problem," Hoddle said. "It was in the back of my mind that he might ask. These things come ahead of a football match.''

The football match at Wembley in four days' time has a huge significance for a 28-year-old player who recently believed that his international career was over, but he acknowledges that he has a higher priority now.

"People ask if my biggest challenge is to get back into the England team," he said. "My biggest challenge is not to have a drink, a drug or a gamble today."

It is the classic position of the recuperating addict - and Merson knows from experience that the greatest threat to that resolve is the sort of boredom that can occur in situations just such as he finds at Bisham Abbey now, where he and the rest of the squad are cloistered for the week, Continental- style.

Accordingly, he arrived forearmed with a selection of books dealing with addiction, and the phone numbers of several of his fellow-sufferers. On Wednesday night, when those squad members who had been involved in Euro 96 attended a reception at No 10 Downing Street, Merson stayed in his room, reading and phoning others in his situation.

The physical changes he has undergone came home to him the other day when he was asked to sign a six-year-old picture of himself. "I look much younger now than I did then," he said. "My wife said the same. It was frightening.''

In the bad old days, he weighed around 13st 12lb. Nowadays he is down to 12st 10. "That's about eight packs of sugar," he said. "Imagine carrying that round with you all day.''

A member of the press offered the thought that many present did not have to imagine such a thing. Merson's thoughtful, troubled expression gave way to a brief grin. He may have lightened up in an absolute sense, but in terms of his attitude he has become a far more sober individual, in all the senses of that word.

He admitted there had been a period when he had become lax about attending such meetings. "I got completely complacent," he said. "I would sit down at night and think: 'I don't want a drink, I don't want drugs. I'll just watch a film.'

"Three or four weeks would go by without me going. It's easy to drift away. Then when the depression starts... you should go to meetings even if you don't feel like it, rather than waiting until you have to. That is wrong, and everybody there will tell you that.''

Merson's fellow players have been supportive. "No one takes the mickey," he said. "But it will still be as bad a problem to face in 10 or 20 years. It's no laughing matter at all, really.''

In the meantime he is trying to enjoy his international recall to the full. He watched England's Euro 96 matches from the stands, along with his two sons, and felt at the time he had blown his chances of earning further caps for his country.

To be back in the fold is something to cherish. "Two years ago I was crap," he said. "I had got used to playing crap. Now I've got my confidence back. I believe in myself again.''

For Merson, life is now a matter of keeping on believing.

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