Colin Lee: Glad to see old pal Mers happy in his new life

Torbay Weekly

Watching the BBC documentary on former England star Paul Merson brought back memories of when I signed Paul (Mers) while managing Walsall FC between 2002 and 2004.

During the close season of 2003, I received a phone call informing me that Portsmouth were prepared to release Mers from his contract, having gained promotion back into the Premier League.

Most of my holiday was spent on the telephone trying to convince Mers to move to the Bescot Stadium a few miles from where he lived.

Nottingham Forest and Reading were also interested in getting his signature.

It was agreed for us to meet on my return from holiday and following several discussions and a meeting at his house with him and his family, he agreed to sign for Walsall on a two-year deal following a financial settlement with Portsmouth, where he had a year left on his contract.

In my opinion, this was arguably Walsall’s biggest-ever signing but probably, if I’m honest, one of my most testing signings.

His decision to join Walsall was mainly down to the way we played our football and a chance for him to play for a club closer to home.

Part of our discussions was for me to groom Paul for a coaching and management role at the Bescot Stadium once he decided his playing days were over.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be.

On July 18, 2003, Paul Merson signed for Walsall. It became evident after a few weeks there was a problem.

During training, Paul became frustrated and at times would do his own thing and most days training became a challenge to say the least.

Mers possessed wonderful skill and vision and was a true match-winner when totally focused but, unfortunately, our preparation plans and team spirit was being affected by him as his mood swings became unmanageable at times.

To try to get to the bottom of this, I decided to meet with him every morning before training to discuss the training programme and what was expected from everyone involved including him.

I also gave him the option, depending on how he was feeling, to either train with the team or to train in the gym with our fitness coach/physiotherapist in an attempt to keep up his fitness and prevent our training programme from being disrupted.

Unfortunately, this didn’t quite go to plan as when Paul decided to train with the squad on several occasions his actions while training led to another meeting following training where we discussed the training and how his actions had affected the programme and the other players in a negative way.

Paul would always eventually apologise and admit he didn’t fully understand why this had happened and one day he described himself as having several different heads and heads he didn’t understand at times.

I replied by saying: ”The true Paul Merson head was a very intelligent person, a likeable person, a caring person, a kind and generous person, and a friend liked by everyone but the other heads he had at times I felt like knocking off his shoulders.”

I will always remember the day he came to see me one afternoon following training, where he opened up to me about his gambling addiction.

It was a very brave decision and something I have never spoken about openly until now following the BBC documentary which Paul did in an attempt to help others and called for the laws to be tightened to prevent addicts from gambling away their entire lives.

In our meeting, he described his gambling addiction and how it was taking over his life and how he needed help in an attempt to overcome this dreadful disease.

Having lost more than £7 million over 30 years, he is not calling for betting to be banned but for the companies to have accountability for those who get hooked.

In the UK, one person commits suicide every day because of gambling problems.

He believes they need to have the power/option to limit the accounts of those who are addicted.

When speaking with Paul that afternoon, I asked him several questions but the one that has always stuck in my mind was when I asked him when he got the biggest buzz from gambling.

Was it when he won? No, surely not when you lost?

No, he replied I get my biggest buzz when putting on the bet, the bigger the bet the bigger the buzz.

I was shocked and following our meeting quickly set about trying to help Paul to overcome an addiction that had become an uncontrollable disease.

It was agreed, on Paul’s request, to allow him to stand down from playing football for one month to attend a clinic in Arizona in an attempt to help him overcome his addiction.

On his return, he seemed to be in a better state of mind but he also confirms he probably needed longer away but financially this was not possible.

The documentary confirmed the addiction continued.

Paul has remained a friend to me and my family and is one of the nicest people you can meet; I am so pleased to see him happy in his new life and dealing with a deadly disease that is not recognised.

Stay strong Mers - you can become the winner.

When signing Paul Merson I had to convince the chairman that although his wages were the highest the club had ever paid, there were ways of retrieving back a large amount of money to support the decision.

We put together a Merson plan which we called the Merson factor keeping a record of how his signing had created/generated extra income to support his wages.

I managed to get Aston Villa to play us in a pre-season friendly which would be Mers’s debut.

The game was sold out within 48 hours and a 12,000 crowd attended a sell-out pre-season game which I believe has never happened since at the Bescot Stadium.

The other income stream which we anticipated was shirt sales which as expected exceeded any other player, which again financially supported his wages.

It was interesting to come across shirt sales for Ronaldo and Messi following their transfers to Manchester United and PSG respectively.

Ronaldo’s shirt sales up to September 12, 2021 was £187.1 million and following Messi signing for PSG, his shirt sales hit £103.8 million - so you can see how clubs can make certain signings work financially in their favour.