Football: Opposites attract Hoddle

Trevor Haylett meets a pair of gifted England players with one goal in common

Seven years and 11 caps separate Paul Merson and David Beckham, but in other ways they are two players sharing the thrill of starting out on the international road.

Part of the healing process for the rehabilitating Merson includes viewing today, and all that life brings to it, as if yesterday never happened.

Should he be chosen for England to face Italy at Wembley in tomorrow's World Cup qualifying tie, it will be like winning that first precious call-up for his country all over again. When he next climbs the winner's rostrum with Arsenal, it will be with the enthusiasm known to those who believe success is something that only comes to others.

Truly, the 28-year-old Merson is a man for today and tomorrow. The dark hours of yesteryear - when drink and drugs and gambling placed his sanity at risk, let alone the remnants of a once flourishing career - have been swept away.

That became clear yesterday when he was asked what he remembered about Gianfranco Zola from Arsenal's Cup-Winners' Cup victory over Parma in 1994. "Not a lot," he replied, "But then I can't remember a lot about any of the two years before my problems were revealed. I have just pushed everything aside and started again.

"All the England caps and medals that I won before I've given to my dad and in my own mind I haven't really won anything yet. Nobody told me this was the right thing to do, it was just something I decided upon.

"There were some good times in the past, but I can't honestly say I enjoyed any of them. It's like that Cup-Winners' Cup final. People say what a great feat it was, but I did not enjoy it like everyone else could."

Merson's versatility enhances England's attacking options as Glenn Hoddle, the England coach, juggles with a number of possible formations while awaiting the final bulletin on who will - and who won't - be available. Merson can play as a wide midfielder or further forward as an auxiliary striker, just behind Alan Shearer. It is from that position that he still demonstrates the shooting prowess that first announced him as another Highbury youngster with international possibilities.

He says he is now enjoying the best football of his career. "The difference between Paul Merson now and the one of two years ago is unbelievable. I have been in the England squad the last two times and it's nice to think there is a chance to play. If I start the game on Wednesday it will be another test for me, but the struggle still goes on. The easiest thing is to get to the mountain top; the hard part is to stay there."

Merson's myriad problems stem from an inability to cope with the fame and the rewards that come with it. With no sign of a brake on football's accelerating popularity, we should be thankful that in Beckham both England and Manchester United appear blessed with a prodigious talent whose temperament will help him cope with most things that come his way.

A fourth international cap for the 21-year-old from Leytonstone looks a certainty amidst all the ifs and buts that surround Hoddle's selection. It is a measure of how far Beckham has come in such a short space of time. At the start of the season he says he was not sure of his place at Old Trafford, but from that first game at Wimbledon - and his memorable goal from the half-way line - it has been success after success.

"Yes," he says, "if I felt the opportunity was there to try a shot like that on Wednesday I would do it. Of the goals I have scored, that ranks as the best because it was so different from the rest. Alex Ferguson and Glenn Hoddle have both been very encouraging and told me not to be afraid to miss."

The incessant questions, the cameras, the hangers-on - nothing seems to faze him. "I really enjoy seeing things about me in the papers. Perhaps it helps that I was once a little kid with an autograph book myself. If you are in the public eye, then you have to put up with these things."

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