Twenty-five years ago this week, FrontRowSoccer.com editor Michael Lewis journeyed to London to pursue ambitious project: write about English soccer, sometimes with local flavor, other times with a U.S. twist. He wound up attending seven matches over 12 days in all four professional leagues. He wrote the stories for Soccer New York, a print publication, in January 1996.
As it turned out, this series comes at a time when crowds in London have been forbidden due to the discovery of a mutated strain of COVID-19. FrontRowSoccer.com already had planned to re-post this series as it comes on the 25th anniversary of this trip.
By Michael Lewis
LONDON – It was the perfect example of what a difference a year makes.
Only 365 days prior, Arsenal midfielder Paul Merson wasn’t thinking about playing soccer. Rather, he was just trying to get by one day at a time in life and in the English Premier League.
He had been spending most of his time at Marchwood Priority Hospital in Southampton after admitting to addiction to cocaine, alcohol and gambling. He was allowed to go home for the holidays to visit his family.
Merson still is trying to get by one day at a time, but it’s at a higher profile.
Today, a day after Christmas (Dec. 26, 1995), Merson wasn’t only playing for Arsenal, he took center stage for the Premier League club. Merson scored two goals 0 his first two goals in nine matches dating back to Oct. 21 -for the fifth-place team in a solid 3-0 triumph over Queens Park Rangers before a capacity crowd of 38,259 at Highbury.
The goals could not have come at a better time. The Gunners, who boast a dangerous attack side with the likes of Dutch Star Dennis Bergkamp, Ian Wright and David Platt, hadn’t won a league game since Nov. 21, as they broke a five-game winless streak (0-1-4).
“He has been through a very difficult time,” said Arsenal manager Bruce Rioch, who once was an all-star defender with the Seattle Sounders of the North American Soccer League almost a generation ago. “the best therapy is to play football and getting support from everybody.”
Merson hasn’t talked to the media much about his personal problems in the past several months, and not surprisingly, he was unavailable after the game.
“He knows what question are going to be raised,” Rioch said. “He just wants to get away from it.”
So, Merson couldn’t comment on his first goal (Wright had tallied Arsenal’s initial score with only seconds left in the opening half), which lifted the Gunners into a 2-0 lead. He half-volleyed a pass from Johns Jensen past American goalkeeper Jurgen Sommer in the 61st minute.
He couldn’t answer any questions about his second goal, as Merson took a Paul Dichov feed and ran around Sommer in the 84th minute.
Of course, the 27-year-old Merson was just happy to be playing.
A year ago he was living at Marchwood. Some might say he was living in hell, trying to get sober again.
“It was my sanity that led me down the road to cocaine,” Merson wrote in his book, Rock Bottom. “There were two Paul Mersons. The gambler, the drinker, the drug user out of head. Then there was the Paul Merson (who) was devoted to his family and dedicated to football. That’s the man I want to prove I can become gain, and I believe I’m doing just that, as there is nowhere for me to go if I fail now.”
Even though Merson had but two goals in 19 games entering the QPR confrontation, Rioch stuck with the former English international.
“Christmas can be very difficult for people in Paul’s position and I was very pleased he saw some evidence in what he has achieve,” Rioch said. “There was a lot of comment when he had problems. Some wanted him banned. Others wanted the club to take care of him.
“I would just ask people what they would do, if he was their own son – would they reject him? … It is up to me to get the best out of him, as a human being and player.”
In fact, now Merson is used y the club to speak to younger players about life’s challenges.
“I am not saying I know what he has been through,” Rioch said, “but I can understand it and try to help as best I can. Now Paul repays that. He talks to the young players about drink, drugs and gambling. He can warn them from experience.
“I’ve been delighted with him. I think he will keep progressing.”
Next: Another London Calling interlude