Matt Gatward: Merson relives fear that replay could ruin a knees-up

View From The Sofa: Time of our Lives, Sky Sports
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The Independent Football

Jeff Stelling is one of the shining lights of Sky Sports' football coverage but even his presence doesn't usually quash the temptation to flick straight through Time of our Lives.

While it's refreshing for the corporation to at least acknowledge that football existed BS (Before Sky) the hour-long chat hosted by "Sir Jeff" that wheels out old gippers to bang on about how it was better in my day is often, sadly, deadly dull. Yeah, of course the game was more fun in the Sixties when you could decapitate the opposition's centre-forward without the ref even batting an eye and the ball was heavier than a house but get over it. Move on. Only those closer to wearing dentures than nappies have got the time to spare.

So it was refreshing this week to see an episode with three players of more recent vintage discussing their careers. That the footballers involved are no strangers to Sky's everyday coverage of the game took little away from the enjoyment. Paul Merson, Ray Parlour and Alan Smith were the guests. That they were chatting about the terminally boring Arsenal team that scrapped their way to the oh-so-forgettable cup double of 1992-93 only added to the amusement. George Graham's side were as dull as ditchwater on the field but with the likes of Tony Adams, Merson, Parlour and Ian Wright in their ranks, there were stories aplenty worth telling about their antics off the field (which usually meant in Champions in Potters Bar). It wouldn't work with every team of the early Nineties (you can only imagine Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Denis Irwin recounting their title-winning season of 1992-93 would be sleep-inducing) but the Gunners under Graham were a haphazard bunch of personalities.

Parlour, the Romford Pele as Stelling keeps reminding him he was once dubbed, tells one tale of travelling to Anfield as a non-playing squad member. He and defender Andy Linighan decide to pop up to the bar for a few pints before kick-off only for assistant manager to Graham, Stewart Houston, to rush in and tell Parlour, on his fourth lager, he is now on the bench as another player has picked up an injury in the warm-up. "Let him finish his pint first," says Linighan. Parlour sups up, joins the substitutes and plays the last 30 minutes, being run ragged by Liverpool's Jamie Redknapp in the process.

Smith, the straight man to the comedy double act, keeps trying to drag the subject back to the actual football only for Merson and Parlour to deliver yet another tale of boozing and birds. Merson, whose problems with alcohol are well documented, talks about his enjoyment of being part of the Tuesday drinking club and seeing the Danish midfielder John Jensen pass out and fall backwards off his stool.

He also tells of one FA Cup game where Wrexham equalise with five minutes to go and the fear among the players is not of being knocked out of the old competition by a fourth division, side but of a replay scuppering their weekly knees-up.

The show features the odd footballing anecdote, Smith tells the tale of only being booked once in his career, unfathomable in today's game, but largely focuses on the nights out, banter and booze-fuelled team spirit that played a huge part in English football in the early Nineties. It feels like a lifetime ago, before Sky's cash injection raised the profile of the game. And then you read about certain players' recent exploits and you realise nothing much has changed at all.