Football / World Cup: England seduced by the Merson enigma: Arsenal's exponent of the unexpected strike ready to ambush Dutch. Clive White reports

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WHEN Ian Wright pulled out of England's match against the Netherlands at Wembley in April through injury, he was in no doubt about who should replace him. 'Paul Merson,' he declared without hesitation. 'Not just because he's my team-mate, but because he is quality in every sense. When I am picked in front of players of his ability it gives me a big boost.'

It would have been exceedingly big-hearted of Wright to appreciate the irony yesterday, when, six months on, Merson was indeed selected to face the Dutch, only in preference now to Wright, who had been declared fit at the weekend after a knee injury.

It would be difficult to say who was the more embarrassed by Graham Taylor's selection of Merson for his 13th cap - Wright or George Graham, his Arsenal manager, who, ironically, ever since the arrival of Wright at Highbury, has steadfastly refused to cede to Merson's wishes to play him in a striking role for his club.

'I am surprised at his selection because he has not featured much in the England manager's plans to date,' Graham said yesterday. 'We were led to believe that Ian Wright would be picked if he was fit.' On the ticklish question of roles, he added: 'I don't know where he's going to play him - I'll leave that up to Graham.'

The most successful club manager currently in English football was taking precious few calls on the subject of Merson's selection yesterday, largely leaving the pundits to 'write it as you see it'. Hardly the reaction one would expect from a manager whose player had just been honoured by his country.

Taylor's thinking has its supporters, Gary Mabbutt for one. The Tottenham captain, whose experience of playing against Merson in the fiercest of derbies has given him high respect for the Arsenal man, said: 'I think it's a brave decision by Graham Taylor, but it's one which I think could stand up. Personally, I would have gone for Teddy Sheringham, but then I'm biased. I think Paul can do a good job and surprise a few people. He has a gift for the unexpected and can turn a game with a flash of brilliance.'

Despite his high regard for his player's talent, Graham has been at a loss to know just how to extract the best of Merson on a regular basis, trying him in every forward position in the last few seasons. 'Best' for Graham means to be prolific as a goalscorer, yet Merson has never been that, scoring just 13 goals in the championship season of 1990-91 as an out-and-out attacker.

Graham was close enough to feel that he had unlocked the secret of Merson's magic last season to announce: 'I've never had any doubts about his ability. The thing he lacked and needed was self-discipline on and off the pitch. Well, now he's got that and for me he is the complete attacking player,' adding, somewhat poignantly given the latest development: 'And that versatility is going to be an enormous asset in international football.'

Graham's frustration with the player is nothing new, however. In one season he fined him eight weeks' wages because of his indiscipline, largely a matter of over-indulgence in food and drink. But given last season's heady finish and Merson's contribution in two Wembley triumphs, it was surprising to find his name linked to a transfer to Rangers before the season had even begun.

He was soon dropped again in September, but since returning to the side has produced more of Graham's kind of goalscoring power, roughly a goal every two games. 'He's a talent, no mistake,' Graham said yesterday, 'but one who, as a midfield player, should comfortably be in double figures every season.' Merely doubling his total of one goal for England would surely be enough for Taylor tonight.

(Photograph omitted)