Paul Merson: The Soccerlens interview
Watching a 40-year-old Paul Merson take to the field a couple of months ago against Scotland Legends you could see, despite his lack of pace, the touch and the vision that saw him become a star at Arsenal and earned him 21 England caps.
Indeed, it’s a testament to the attacker’s skills that he was the only member of England’s 1998 World Cup squad not to play for a top-flight team, and you wonder what Fabio Capello would give to have a player like Merson in his squad for the current qualifying campaign.
Not that the former Arsenal, Middlesbrough and Villa player, who’s preparing to play his second Legends game against Germany live on ITV4, sees himself as the type of player England needs. When asked which of the players from his generation would have helped England to Euro 2008 his answer is immediate: Alan Shearer.
“It all comes down to goals doesn’t it,” Merson says when asked what made Shearer such a special player for England. “Gary Lineker was a goal scorer, Alan Shearer, you know, he led by example.
“But at the end of the day, England haven’t got that player. Michael Owen for me has to play every time England play because he is a proven goal scorer. We haven’t got a recognised out-and-out international centre-forward like Michael Owen. It does put the fear through the opposition when they see his name on the team sheet.”
Over the phone, Merson comes across exactly as you’d expect him to. On the pitch, be it for Arsenal, England or Aston Villa, he always wore a huge grin on his face and, as one Arsenal fan site simply states: Paul Merson loved playing football.
Today the conversation is punctuated frequently by his laughter, jokes and self-depreciating humour and it’s clear he enjoys speaking about football as much as he did playing it. But if there are reservations, they’re about the current state of the England team.
“It half picks itself nowadays, the team, really. I remember years ago you could sit in the pub or sit at work and you could try and name the England team and everybody would have a different opinion.
“You know, nowadays, you sit and talk to people and say pick the team and everybody virtually picks the same team, bar one or two players tops and that’s it. So that’s the worrying thing for me – the first 11′s very very good and the rest are not… you know, they’re not up to the standard of winning a tournament.”
Merson certainly has a point. The England Legends team that played Scotland, and the team that will face Germany on Thursday, had players like Les Ferdinand, Lee Sharpe and Ray Parlour who would surely have commanded a place in today’s team but only have a handful of caps between them.
But Merson, like most involved in the game, doesn’t have an immediate solution on how England can build a future squad of new legends although he does suggest learning from abroad.
“For me, I don’t think the coaching methods are like the ones abroad. You know in Holland, and Germany, and places like that – everybody seems so comfortable on the ball from a young age.”
But the former PFA Young Player of the Year is still confident Fabio Capello’s England can perform and will be in South Africa in two years time, although he’s not expecting free-flowing, attacking football from the former Juve and Real Madrid boss.
“We’ve still got to qualify and I don’t think it’ll be entertaining or pretty but that’s not the point. They need to qualify. The last manager messed-up big time, so, I’m sure he’ll [Capello] get England to the World Cup — I don’t see any question about that at all.”
Legends — past and present
There’s no question Merson’s looking forward to taking on the Germans in Sheffield, and pulling on the Three Lions of England once again. “When you get twenty-two professional… ex-professional footballers on the pitch, everybody wants to win,” he says.
“There’s no such thing as a friendly. They don’t even break a smile. It’ll be competitive, there’s no question about that, you know everybody wants to win.
“We played them last time and we got half-slaughtered, to be fair, but that was when all the celebrities were playing so it should be different this time around.”
The game Merson’s referring to is the 2006 game at Reading that featured the infamous moment where the now-Mayor of London Boris Johnson launched headfirst into a tackle that would have been more appropriate for the oval ball game.
That game ended in a 4-2 defeat for the English and it would be fair to say Merson would quite like to get a bit of revenge on Thursday, but with the likes of Steffen Freund, Fredi Bobic and Carsten Ramelow in the German team, he knows it won’t be easy.
“You know, these are decent players. We played against the Scotland team and thought ‘uh-oh, they’re all young, a lot younger’ but we played well. But this one will be a different game. Completely different.”
And Merson then launches into one of his trademark laughs when the amount of honours the German squad has won is reeled off to him.
“I’m not looking at that! It’s 34 inch waists I’m looking at! I’m not looking at the middle, I’m looking at their waistlines. We’ve got a couple of 44s, 46s, 40s! But no it should be good, you know. It’s a great opportunity to play against some great players.”
The game also has an extra special significance for Merson. Back in 1991, fresh from a league title at Arsenal, he made his debut against the reunited German team in a friendly at Wembley — the first time East and West Germany had played together as one country since the Second World War.
And one of those players who’ll be leading the fight against Germany at Bramall Lane is former Captain Marvel Bryan Robson, a player it’s clear Merson has nothing but the utmost respect for.
“Bryan Robson’s got to be up there for me. He’s got to be up there. You know, great for me is whoever performs in the World Cup and he was a top man in the World Cup.
“I worked under him at Middlesbrough as well — he was a brilliant and unbelievable player. I’m also a massive fan of John Barnes. You know, people say he never did it for England but I don’t agree with that. He was a top man. People blocked him out of the game, made sure he never played but I thought he was a brilliant player.”
But neither Barnes nor Robson quite gets the accolade as Merson’s all-time England legend. Instead he gives the accolade to arguably England’s best player at the 1990 World Cup — Paul Gascoigne.
“Bryan Robson was unbelievable, you know, but when he’s played, you know, I would have to say Paul Gascoigne, I really would. He shines. Paul Gascoigne, 1990, was probably one of the best players in the world in that tournament.”
As for today’s England Legends, Merson has no hesitation in naming Steven Gerrard, who he describes as “one of the best players in the world.”
More than that, it’s clear Merson thinks Gerrard is key to Liverpool’s title hopes this season. “No question about it,” he says when asked. “He is Liverpool. If Torres and Gerrard don’t play for Liverpool they ain’t winning the game.”
And with that, the double League Championship winner, and Arsenal and England Legend, has to go, but not before signing off with another deep laugh and a “take care.”
He may be more worried about his waistline than his performance, but if the Scotland game is anything to go by, the Germans should be worried about seeing Merson lining up opposite them — he is a man still in love with the game on and off the pitch.
England v Germany Legends is live at Bramall Lane on ITV4 from 7pm. Tickets are £10 adults and £5 concessions.