Paul Merson is fighting another battle against addiction and has been given a leave of absence by his current club, Walsall, to seek treatment and rehabilition at a specialist clinic abroad.
The Midlands club, whom he joined last summer after helping Portsmouth to win the First Division title, were last night resigned to losing the services of their former Arsenal and England midfielder for an open-ended period after announcing he had "left the country to undertake a programme of treatment and rehabilitation further to his long-standing and well publicised addictive problems."
Merson, 35, who has struggled with alcohol and cocaine dependency during a colourful career, admitted last year that problems with gambling had driven him to the brink of suicide.
"I've stayed away from drink and drugs but gambling has beat me, spanked me all over the place," he said. "Every day it would go through my head about committing suicide."
While at Portsmouth he spent a week at the Sporting Chance addiction unit set up by his former Arsenal team-mate Tony Adams. He had admitted to running up huge losses, including a £30,000 bet on the outcome of a single football match.
Harry Redknapp, the Portsmouth manager, said: "He's told me how he can't think about anything else other than his next bet." Merson joined Walsall in order to live at his home in Sutton Coldfield with his second wife, Louise, and their twin daughters. But his problems have resurfaced in the past few weeks. In November, he was arrested for allegedly assaulting his wife and spent a night in police cells.
Afterwards, while denying he had physically harmed his wife, he was full of remorse, praising her loyalty. "I feel guilty every day," he said. "But my wife has been as good as gold and she's stuck by me. I love her deeply." He opened his Walsall career with four goals in his first four matches but his form has not been so consistent recently. He has not added to his six goals so far since October and has missed a number of matches as Walsall have slipped towards the bottom of the First Division.
The latest setback came against Crewe on Saturday, when a 1-1 draw left Colin Lee's side without a win in six games. "Paul's just not able to play at the moment," Lee said. "He's got a lot of problems. He's not feeling well. We tested him and physically he wasn't able to take part."
Merson, who spent a year at Middlesbrough and four years at Aston Villa before his successful season at Portsmouth, has slipped from one crisis to another throughout his career. In the 1989-90 season at Arsenal, he was banned from Highbury for two weeks amid reports of drinking and gambling debts.
In November 1994, he confessed to a cocaine habit and spent six weeks at an addiction unit, being allowed to leave only on condition that he attended outpatient therapy and support groups. Eight years ago, he broke down in tears at a press conference, claiming his life was "in ruins" because of his addictions.
When he arrived at the Bescot Stadium last August, he admitted that keeping control was a day-to-day struggle. "It's still very hard," he said. "That's the way my life is now. When I go to bed at night I always think, 'You never had a drink today'. That's how I try to stay on top of it. In truth, I don't feel like a drink. And I don't want one.
"But there's always a danger - just ask George Best. Even this many years down the line from not having a drink, I don't kid myself that that could not be me." The Professional Footballers' Association has pledged its support for Merson.Reuse content