Football: Merson's bee-line for place in France

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The Independent Online
PAUL MERSON fixed the World Cup finals in his sights after an impressive international comeback as England B captain and then admitted: "Three years ago I thought I would be lucky to play football again."

It was then that Merson was at the nadir of his career with his well- documented gambling, alcohol and drugs problems and booked himself into an addiction clinic.

But those dark days are behind the former Arsenal player, who is reaping the dividends from his determination to make the most of being given a second chance.

He made his first international appearance for 12 months in Tuesday's B encounter with Chile at The Hawthorns in front of England coach Glenn Hoddle and led by example in being head and shoulders above anybody else on the pitch.

Merson revelled in the freedom of operating just behind strikers Emile Heskey and Darren Huckerby as opposed to the centre-forward role he is generally used in by Middlesbrough.

He said: "The fact that Glenn Hoddle wanted me to play was very encouraging and to be honest I would rather have done that than maybe sit in the stand after training with the seniors.

"Don't get me wrong, it is great to be in the first-team squad, but I need to play to prove and to show to everybody what I can do - and I was pleased with my performance.

"I think you have to put to one to side that people like Glenn Hoddle and John Gorman are watching. It's easy to get caught up in things and be like a 15-year-old trialist in trying to beat the world when you first get the ball.

"At the moment I am on the fringe of the squad. I've just kept saying to myself `give it your all.' I'd hate to think I didn't make it when there was still a bit more in the tank to give.

"If I give everything, play well for my club and any B games I'm selected for and miss out then I could then live with myself." He added: "If someone had said three years ago that I would be leading my country out, it is something I could just not have imagined happening.

"Three years down the line, I was thinking I would have been lucky to come out and play football again. It's been a great honour for me. People say `England B, so what?' but it's one of the biggest honours I've had in the game and I include all the trophies I've won with Arsenal when saying that. There was no problem motivating myself.

"I was the oldest there and the young lads in the squad do look up to you in training and in the way they talk to you. It shows how far I've come down the line and it was important to lead by example."

He said: "I find that is my best position. I don't play there for my club - which I'd like to. But we just haven't got enough centre-forwards at Middlesbrough for me not to have to play in the forward role.

"If I went to the World Cup I don't think I would be going as a centre- forward. There are too many forwards in front of me. If I have a chance of going it's in Tuesday's role but I can play a few positions."

Despite England's 2-1 reversal, Merson believes there is a well of young English talent emerging and is predicting great things for Huckerby and Heskey.

He said: "They are good young players. Maybe they won't make it in time for this World Cup, but they have got plenty of time on their hands.

"Huckerby gets at players and is very direct. He's come on so much for someone who has been playing regular Premiership football for barely a year. He's going to be a very good player.

"Heskey makes great runs and has great pace and he certainly made my job easier. Playing at this level can only make the likes of him and Huckerby into better players. Believe me when I say that in four years they will be big stars in the World Cup."

FA Cup Countdown, page 28

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