Football: The indispensable quality of Merson: Jasper Rees pays tribute to Arsenal's versatile forward who has flourished while others have flagged at Highbury

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The Independent Online
THERE was a moment, a few years ago, when all those brought up to think not very highly of Arsenal Football Club were assailed by doubt.

The moment coincided with the emergence in a red-and-white shirt of a young fair-haired inside- forward who didn't have much in the way of front teeth but had a certain bite in his boots. Paul Merson belongs to the Highbury tradition which ensures that Arsenal are never 11 parts 'boring, boring'. Like Charlie George and Liam Brady before him, he is the Gunner who you can rely on to play football the dazzling way.

Leeds United know all about that. They wouldn't have had to undergo the palpitations of Wednesday night's FA Cup replay at Elland Road were it not for Merson's equaliser at Highbury the week before. Typically, it was as eye-catching as it was timely. Unlike one or two of the touch players who have graced the Arsenal side over the years, Merson is not just a fair-weather footballer; he exasperates and baffles with the best of the wayward entertainers - his penalty saved last Sunday by Liverpool's David James is a case in point - but he does score when it counts.

'He's always liable to score an out-of-the-blue goal for you,' says Charlie George, who is at Highbury whenever Arsenal are. Today, in the first leg of the Coca- Cola Cup semi-final at Selhurst Park, Crystal Palace will have to find a way of coping with Merson, who scored a superb hat-trick against them last season, as well as with their old boy Ian Wright. Will it also be Merson who partners Wright next week when San Marino come to Wembley?

When Arsenal signed Wright in the midst of a particularly goal- drenched oasis in their history, even the odd non-fan must have lain awake at night fretting over whom George Graham would drop from a rampaging forward line. Only once was it Merson. Partly because he rarely succumbs to injury, partly because he can fit in where the manager wants him - left-wing, right-wing, inside- forward, in the hole, in midfield - he has made himself indispensable.

He has done so in spite of some off-the-pitch pursuits which once threatened to make him quite the opposite. It's no secret that he liked a flutter, that he rarely said no to a drink, but of the generation of players nurtured by Arsenal's youth system into double championship-winners it was two others - David Rocastle and Michael Thomas - who were purged.

Too much success too soon had killed their hunger for more, their manager said, but while the other two went north and have so far failed to take it by storm, Merson stayed at Highbury. At 24 he's already part of the furniture at an address where the rest of the furniture is not valued for its elegance.

In the seasons at Highbury since he became a first-team regular, Arsenal have finished first, fourth, first, fourth. This year, bar some extraordinary reversal of fortune affecting about half the division, another fourth is about as much as the Gunners can hope for. Merson, however, carries on standing out in a year in which the form of Smith, Campbell, Limpar and even Wright has dipped.

Whether he will eventually graduate to a permanent berth in the England team remains to be seen. What makes him so useful to Arsenal is what might keep him on the bench at international level. 'I don't really know where he thinks his best position is himself,' George says.

'He adapted well when he came into midfield the second half the other night. I think he liked the position where he was playing behind the front two strikers, but he is also dangerous on the wings where he can cut in and use a bit of pace.'

Lawrie McMenemy, Graham Taylor's assistant, is also an admirer. 'When you get to tournament situations and you're limited to the number of players you can take, that's where versatile players are useful,' he says. 'Paul could go on in any forward position. I think it is an asset. It's down to the player whether he feels happy with that.'

The other worry is temperament. A refusal to conform restricted the international career of Charlie George, who is still nonchalant about it after all these years. 'As a player you look around and think, I'm better than him, I can do better than that. But I never really cried too much about it. They pick who they want to pick. That's entirely up to them, isn't it?'

McMenemy is not aware of any attitude problems with Merson. 'Paul is in that younger group where he combs his hair when he comes with England. All I know is he's never been any bother. He's always got a smile on his face.'

What more can he do to keep it there, to turn himself into an automatic selection rather than a perpetual substitute? 'If he keeps going along the way he is, he'll get the recognition he deserves,' George says. 'He's basically got most of the qualities that a lot of players would want. If he could improve, I'd say it would be to do it week-in, week- out. But then, genius is spasmodic, isn't it?'

(Photograph omitted)