Football: Merson on a different plane

Simon Turnbull hears the Boro man putting a reunion with Arsenal in perspective
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The Independent Online
IT WILL probably only hit Paul Merson when Saturday comes, and when kick-off time is nigh at the Riverside. Playing against the Arsenal promises to be a truly disorientating experience for the former long- serving Gunner. It has, one suspects, been difficult enough for him to play for another club. It was with great reluctance, and after it was made painfully clear he would not be a prominent part of Arsene's future Arsenal, that Merson uprooted from Highbury and accepted a reported pounds 1m a year to assume Juninho's No 10 shirt, and the Brazilian's inspirational mantle, at Middlesbrough.

His home remains in Hertfordshire, though he uses Fabrizio Ravanelli's old North Yorkshire haunt as a midweek base, and his heart, his football heart at least, probably still lies somewhere between the North Bank and the Clock End. Having spent half of his 29 years at Highbury, that would only be natural. It would also explain why Merson felt it necessary to qualify his midweek assertion that, "I'd rather we beat Ipswich at home on Saturday and Liverpool in the Coca-Cola Cup semi-finals than Arsenal." He added swiftly: "That's not because I played for Arsenal. It's just getting things in perspective."

It also happens to be a popular view in Middlesbrough, the one place on the road to Wembley unlikely to be afflicted by FA Cup fever this week. Their cups have overrunneth on Teesside. Last season, of course, in between the finals of the Coca-Cola Cup and the FA Cup, Boro slipped from the Premiership into the Nationwide League. And feelings of deja vu are already gathering strength in Middlesbrough. In between securing a two-legged Coca- Cola semi-final against Liverpool, with a quarter-final victory at Reading, and the fourth-round FA Cup tie against Arsenal, by beating Queen's Park Rangers last Tuesday night, Merson and company were beaten 3-0 at Charlton. The fear is that fighting on both cup fronts will once again undermine Middlesbrough's league campaign. And they can ill- afford to spend another season outside the Premiership.

Even with a staggering 26,500 season-ticket holders, and standard sell- out home gates of 30,000, Boro need top-flight status to salvage the ambitious blueprint formulated by Bryan Robson and Steve Gibson. Juninho, Ravanelli and now Emerson have gone. Robson and his chairman need the players to match their ambition and they will struggle to attract them if Middlesbrough fail to gain promotion at the first attempt. They still have the backbone of a promising Premiership team, and an impressive batch of emerging young players. But the sight of Merson making undetected defence-splitting runs, or dispatching prompting balls for static colleagues, has become a familiar one. He has, more often than not, been playing on a different plane.

Merson, significantly, was one of the few on Teesside to lament the midweek loss of Emerson to Tenerife. "After the QPR game," he said, "I bumped into one manager who said to me, 'who needs Emerson?' But I tell you he'll be missed. Don't worry about that. He's a major loss in my eyes. He was particularly good for me. We were just getting a good thing going.

"We are as big as any team in the Premiership, with a stadium like the Riverside and 30,000 gates. But we've got a lot of young kids and it's hard for them to play, week in, week out. They are very good kids but you can't put it all on them. In the long run we need a couple of players. The boss has said that. And short-term signings are no good. We need players good enough for the Premiership."

Robson's search for suitable reinforcements has taken him to Dublin - Dion, that is. He has already tried and failed to recruit another seasoned Gunner, Ian Wright. The danger remains, however, that the booty which lures the Boro newcomers will not be matched by their commitment to the club. The disparity was glaringly evident in the cases of Ravanelli, Emerson and Branco. And Merson, or course, endured an unhappy period before agreeing to use the house Ravanelli vacated. But then Robson himself has not become one of the locals. He features in a television advert- isement for the Teesside Development Corporation, declaring the area to be "brilliant" - not quite brilliant enough, though, to persuade him to move house from Cheshire.

It is something of a home truth that, for all the millions he has spent, Robson has been indebted to the fixtures and fittings he found when to took over from Lennie Lawrence in Middlesbrough's Ayresome Park days four years ago now. The high-profile legionnaires may have come and gone but Craig Hignett and Robbie Mustoe remain indispensable pillars of reliability down at the Riverside. They are likely to be wearing numbers seven and eight respectively next Saturday, though attention will inevitably be focused on Middlesbrough's No 10.

It might be an omen, but when Arsenal visited the Riverside last season, the star of the show was another prodigal Gunner returning to the limelight. Tony Adams, in his first appearance since his emergence as a not-so-anonymous- alcoholic, shored up his team's defences and shut out Ravanelli and Juninho. Arsenal won 2-0, and no thanks to Ian Wright's striking partner. Paul Merson was in profligate mood that day.

Gooners, for once, will be hoping their lost hero is in a similar state of mind when Saturday comes.