Merson stays at the controls

An England international, recovering from the ravages of addiction, is still hoping to add to his honours; Ian Ridley hears how the Arsenal player is putting his life back together again
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PAUL MERSON was a little late, only this time there was a big difference about it and him. First, he apologised. Second, he explained that he had stayed behind, on his own, for some extra training.

This time last year, Merson would probably have been the first off the Arsenal training ground, heading for a telephone to place a bet. Then the pub. Now, fuelled only by honesty and coffee, he was willing to sit down for as long as you liked in his dining-room to talk about football and the even more important topic of recovery from the illness of addiction. In a corner, three unopened bottles of champagne, Man of the Match awards, stood redundant.

Merson was tangled up in the season of sleaze, publicly admitting his gambling problem, alcoholism and use of cocaine, the substance that hastened him to that point where the addict - the one lucky enough not to die first, that is - gets sick and tired of being sick and tired. It is called the rock bottom, a phrase Merson has chosen for the title of his new autobiography, a frank account of his experience, and now his strength and hope*.

Gradually, a day at a time he would say, he is hauling himself up from it. Booze and betting have always been in the game - add drugs these days - and have wrecked the careers of many players and managers. They are surely doing so to some at this very moment. But no longer, just for today, Paul Merson. Instead he is looking forward to playing for Arsenal at Manchester City, rather than sampling the Maine Road players' lounge.

Merson seemed to have it all: nice wife - Lorraine - nice kids, smart house, good car, great job. But inside, he felt in the gutter. Life was a debilitating round of lying and cheating off the pitch, under- achieving on it. "It used to knacker me out," he says. "Getting a bet on, having a drink, getting up in the morning, making sure nobody knew.

"The lads used to say I was pregnant. I had a rock-solid beer gut. They used to laugh and so did I. I used to love it when people would say 'Cor, he can drink.' My dream was to come out at Arsenal with everybody singing 'Wild Thing' like in Major League." But he sensed things couldn't go on as they were during the second leg of Arsenal's European Cup-winners' Cup tie against Brondby at Highbury last season when, five minutes in, he was thinking of the final whistle.

And he knew they couldn't the night early last November when he phoned home in the middle of a drinking session, coke up his nostrils, and a one-night stand with another woman. His oldest son Charlie pleaded with him to come home. He said he just couldn't right now, son. Recovering addicts can always remember the day they got tired of pretending. It was 13 November 1994.

When he sobered up, it hurt him deeply. He went to Gamblers Anonymous, the first piece of advice being to own up to his problem. Confused, he had a bet later that week - a loser, pounds 500 on Manchester United to draw in Gothenburg - and a couple of glasses of wine in France, to where the Daily Mirror, to whom he chose to convey his story, had spirited him.

He returned to a meeting at a hotel near King's Cross with the FA, who were angry that he had sold his story, though Merson, tearfully, explained that he just wanted it all out in the open. "If I had gone to the club, they could have sent me for treatment and said I was injured but I don't think I could have lived like that," he says.

A group of doctors, with the FA's chief executive Graham Kelly, the then Arsenal manager George Graham and the PFA's chief executive Gordon Taylor, listened intently as Merson was told he must go into treatment. The next day he was in Marchwood House, near Southampton, where the first shock was being told that he probably would not be home for Christmas. He almost walked out. "But I had to stay. If I had left, I would have had nothing."

To some, talk of treatment centres conjures up images of pills and needles. In reality, it consists of a programme involving the first five of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: admitting with rigorous honesty the problem in general and the damage in particular that the addict, known only by his first name, has inflicted on himself and others, then talking about the feelings that have caused the pain and learning to live with them in the future.

The first feeling Merson got in touch with was his anger. "I had to get real," he says. "One time a cup went flying through the room. I was angry about me, about the way I had become. I was trying to get to grips with the things I had done through drinking, using and betting. I didn't realise how sick I was." At first draining and painful, ultimately it was life- changing and liberating. "The more it went on, the more I liked it in there."

Because he could stop drinking and taking drugs 48 hours before a game - though always with the reward of a post-match session - Merson at first had difficulty accepting his alcoholism. "I thought alcoholics drank every day and slept on park benches," he says. But he did understand that once he had the first drink, he couldn't stop until he was drunk. "I could not understand how people could have two pints and leave. I thought there was something wrong with them, not me."

Stopping is one thing; staying stopped another. Now Merson has a belief in a power greater than himself - the AA programme and the common bond and wisdom of its recovering addicts. He goes to GA, AA and/or Narcotics Anonymous meetings at least three times a week and frequently uses the telephone to his "sponsor" Steve, a person longer in recovery, to "share" the feelings which used to drive him to some mood-altering substance or activity.

"It's got good," he says. "But I still have bad days when I want to drink or gamble. People say, 'How can you when you've been through all this?' but I'm still an addict. Me and Lorraine can still have bad times but if I do the right things, like going to meetings and picking up the phone, I get through them. It's like a car with a puncture. You mend it and drive on. But the bad days are not like the ones when I was coming home at six in the morning and getting up at seven and doing bundles of money."

Now he receives only pounds 200 a week in spending money from Arsenal, who pay all his monthly bills direct from his wages. "I lost every bit of perspective on money," he says. "What I was putting on the horses my mum and dad wouldn't have earned in a year of hard work. Now I don't want the money in my pocket. That way I'm not going to have a bet." The six- figure debts are paid with the newspaper series, the book and a signing-on fee from Arsenal he was due.

He has had a drug test every month for the last eight months - all negative - and finds himself changing at the same time as Arsenal are. He liked George Graham and respects Bruce Rioch. "He's trying to do good things. And he's been good to me, wanting to know about me and asking if I've made my phone calls." He has thrived, too, on the support of the Highbury fans, confirmed in his emotional return against Milan last February. Now, he says, he owes them.

"I put a lot into pre-season, more than ever," Merson adds. "I have set myself standards and I haven't been happy with them in the last couple of games. But hopefully I'll reach them. Before, I used to kid myself I did all right. Now I know when I haven't.

"And before, I used to worry about getting to 35 and wondering what I was going to do all day - drinking, playing golf, maybe getting some stables. Now it's doing my best one day and one match at a time. They made that saying for me." The extra work this week involved staying behind and working with the coach Stewart Houston on his left-foot crossing.

"In training I am sharper," he says. The Brondby bloater, that gesturing figure "doing the Merse" with elbows bent and imaginary pints being chucked down, was 13st 10lb; now he is 12st 9lb. "As soon as my left foot comes on it will open up my horizons. Before it was never-never. Now I want to get better, with the talent I know I have got." He has not given up hope of adding to the England caps that decorate the wall.

First things first, though. His own sobriety is what counts, though if the book helps someone, if anyone within football wants help, if his talks to prisons and kids have some effect, then he is glad. He is no saint, nor a bad person; just a sick one trying to get well.

"People say there is pressure on me because of who I am but at a meeting, I am just Paul," he says. Indeed, deep into one conversation after an AA meeting, one member asked him what he did for a living. "I know that if I relapse it will be front-page news and look as if it doesn't work. But like we say at the meetings, it works if you work at it. It's a simple programme; you go to your meetings, talk, don't have any secrets. Maybe we're not normal but where do normal people go to talk?"

*'Rock Bottom', by Paul Merson, with a chapter by Lorraine Merson, is published by Bloomsbury at pounds 14.99.