Arsenal legend PAUL MERSON reveals gambling is the cruellest addiction of all


Normal people can have a bet and not empty their bank accounts. Normal people can have a couple of drinks and go home when they’d said they would, not ten hours later p***** out of their minds.

And, although it’s dangerous and illegal, some people seem to dabble in drugs without craving them constantly.

I’m not like that. I have an addictive personality. I go all-in.

I placed my first bet at 16 and lost my entire first month’s wages at Arsenal in ten minutes at William Hill. And I didn’t stop until, eventually, I’d lost everything I’d ever had – close to £7 million, including houses, cars, marriages, my entire pension and my self-respect.

You might have seen me play football for Arsenal, Middlesbrough, Aston Villa or Portsmouth. You might scoff at the idea that I suffer from crippling anxiety.

PAUL MERSON: Normal people can have a bet and not empty their bank accounts

I’ve taken a penalty for England in a World Cup shootout and it never entered my mind to be scared. On the field, I was safe. But away from football, things were very different.

It’s been that way since I was a child. I was nervous, frightened and sensitive. I wet the bed, sucked my thumb and my mum says I barely spoke before I had speech therapy when I was six. I am dyslexic and had a speech impediment. So you can imagine how I struggled at school.

My head was constantly churning with worries and doubts. I wouldn’t say boo to a goose.

When I had a girlfriend for the first time, I never once plucked up the nerve to kiss her.

Drink was like boarding a rocket for me, a ticket to a different world. I could be the person who made everyone laugh. I could chase away the anxiety of everyday life.

Pictured: Paul Merson playing for Arsenal during his stint there in 1986-87

Pictured: Paul Merson playing for Arsenal during his stint there in 1986-87

I started drinking heavily when I was an 18-year-old and playing on loan for Brentford. Drinking cured my shyness in front of the experienced professionals. I was proud I could easily manage 12 pints of beer.

I’d found the only thing other than football I was good at and carried on putting it away on the team bus and in the bar, turning louder and lairier with each one.

Drink made my relationship with my fiancee Lorraine volatile. Cruelty comes easily to addicts. If you can’t stand yourself, it’s a knee-jerk thing to project all that loathing on to the people you love. I’d be provocative when Lorraine protested about the state I was in, the lies I’d told about when I was coming home and the crowd of drinkers I’d brought in at 4am.

Before long, I was banned from driving. I hadn’t noticed how drunk I was until I wrapped my new car round a lamppost driving the few yards home from the pub. I laughed it off as all part of my growing reputation as a bad boy, a delusion that would mess with my head so much that I used to fantasise about walking on to the pitch to the song Wild Thing.

I managed to stay dry for 48 hours before a game, but I considered all other times fair game: Saturday nights, all day Sunday, all day Tuesday if there was no midweek game and Wednesday night if I could face it.

There are no pictures of me with fancy cocktails. I drank with the fans, sometimes in places you’d never think of going sober – gambling dens, after-hours clubs, dodgy pool halls. I got a kick out of those places; they suited my self-image as a proper geezer.

Pictured: Paul Gascoigne and Paul Merson of Middlesbrough celebrate a return to top flight football on May 3 1998

Pictured: Paul Gascoigne and Paul Merson of Middlesbrough celebrate a return to top flight football on May 3 1998 

My drinking had become really serious by the time Arsenal won the league in 1989.

I can remember a barbecue on the Saturday night, the open-top bus tour on the Sunday and getting home on Tuesday morning. Other than that, it’s a blur.

I’d never considered myself an alcoholic. But I was on the front pages three times in the next few months thanks to a brawl in a pub near my house, a prosecution for drink-driving and for being involved in a fight at the formal dinner to celebrate Arsenal winning the championship.

I was also a compulsive gambler. I knew every racehorse, yard and jockey – everything except how to win. I’d run up huge debts borrowing money to stick on Steve Davis to beat Joe Johnson in the 1986 World Snooker Championship final. Johnson was a pub singer, Davis was free money at seven-to-two on.

The pub singer won and it took me months to pay everyone back.

Lorraine and I married in the summer of 1990, but I spent my wedding night in a foul mood because I’d lost thousands betting on a World Cup match.

Most people would try to make it the best day of their life, but all I could think was: ‘I need a lot of drink to turn me into the person everyone likes, and if I back Scotland to beat Costa Rica, this wedding will cost me nothing.’

Costa Rica won 1-0. I ended the night skint, drunk, and consumed with overwhelming self-hatred.

After that, everything started to snowball. The betting markets exploded in the 1990s and I went with them, adding football, rugby, cricket and tennis to the horses and dogs. Then came American sport – those long-drawn-out games where the sense of delicious uncertainty can last four to five hours. If I won, I had a bigger pot to gamble with. If I lost, I’d chase my debts to make my money back. The more I gambled, the more I drank to soften the blow.

By the summer of 1991, I’d been picked to play for England, I had a good contract for a boot endorsement and we’d won the league for a second time.

With our first child on the way, we bought a bigger house, but I couldn’t afford carpets. I used to pop round to my mum and dad’s just to get something to eat. I arranged a bank loan on the day my son Charlie was born and spent most of the day in the bookies while Lorraine was in labour. I’d make up gambling games on the team coach. When you’re betting on what colour the next car’s going to be, you’ve got a problem.

We did that all the time.

My old team-mate Ray Parlour will tell you a story from the days when we roomed together for away matches. I’d put Teletext on for the dog races. I’d tell him to pick a number and phone up the bookies and put £1,000 on, say, trap three in the 8.06 at Walthamstow.

And we’d wait for the result to flash up. Absolute madness. Win, or more usually lose, I’d go: ‘Pick another number.’ And I’d dump another grand just so I wouldn’t have to think. Kick-off at 3pm on a Saturday was the only time I could find peace.

You would have to be blind not to notice a blizzard of cocaine blowing through the pubs and clubs I frequented.

I politely declined when I was first offered drugs in the Mousetrap, a lively pub in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, in February 1994. Not long afterwards, when I ended a drought with a really good goal against Everton, I knew I was going to party.

I drove to the pub, ordered a lager and scanned the room. I felt a real rush of excitement when I saw the bloke who had offered me cocaine. My first snort of cocaine took effect virtually straight away. And as I walked back towards the bar, my heart was pumping at a million miles an hour.

I felt sharp and, weirdly for me, super-confident. Not just happy to talk to anyone but keen to talk to everyone when I’d usually struggle to overcome my shyness.

I remember downing more and more lager, but the real reason I kept popping back to the toilet was the cocaine. I wanted another line of cocaine, then another and another. It was a decision that led to ten months of hell.

Even when I confessed, begged for help and went into treatment at the end of the year, it suited everybody to play down the amount of cocaine I stuck up my nose.

I said I’d spent about £2,000 from February to November, but it was way, way more than that. I was doing a couple of grams down the pub, then many more at home, sitting in the dark gambling, drinking and snorting until I was driven to the brink of madness.

Among my circle of cocaine-users, I stood out because of how much I’d take in one snort and how often I would want a top up. I was constantly chasing the high.

I even swerved a home European match with ‘tonsillitis’ because I was scared that Uefa competitions had mandatory drugs tests.

Did I feel guilty? Of course, but the drugs were sending me round the bend. Certain that I couldn’t trust anyone, I would disappear on benders for a couple of days, hang out in dodgy places, kip round a mate’s or crash out in the spare room, hunkering down in front of the telly in the middle of the night doing gram after gram when Lorraine was asleep.

I started going to an all-night pub in Smithfield Market. Drinking on my own and snorting in the toilets. I’d hail a black cab at 8am to take me up to training and even have a couple of big hits sitting in the back.

I had bookies chasing me, dealers chasing me. I settled one cocaine debt by handing over my Arsenal blazer and reporting it stolen. Paranoia took over. I was convinced someone was hunting me down. It started taking me an hour to complete what should have been a ten-minute journey, doing U-turns to see if a car ‘on my tail’ would go past.

I was injured in September 1994 and, at a loose end, ran up enormous debts in a vicious circle: place a bet, snort a line, sink a can of beer. Rinse and repeat. I was frightened of Lorraine finding out and did my best to avoid her. The only solution, my brain was telling me, was to kill myself.

By November, I was in crisis. I took so much cocaine one Saturday night that I couldn’t get my heart rate down. I was certain I was going to die. But I was back on it at the next opportunity.

Then Lorraine intervened, calling the Arsenal manager George Graham to get help for me. I felt angry, frightened and cornered but still went out on a five-hour drink-and-drugs bender. I got home to an empty house and cowered in a corner with nothing on, bawling my eyes out, begging for help.

I didn’t want to live like this and I didn’t want to die like this either, strung out on booze, coke and paranoia. That’s when I finally accepted I desperately needed a hand-up.

The club and the Professional Footballers’ Association arranged for me to go to rehabilitation.

Both Arsenal and the Football Association made it clear that I’d have to have successful treatment and submit to frequent drug and alcohol tests if I ever wanted to play football again.

I entered rehab thinking I was addicted to one thing – gambling – and left knowing I was addicted to three. But I was clean, sober and keeping a lid on the urge to gamble for the first time in ten years.

What I didn’t appreciate was that relapse is a normal part of recovery for most multiple addicts. Not knowing that means that if you do get drawn back into old habits, the shame and guilt are even worse than before.

I stayed clean for three years, but relapsed into gambling and drinking after transferring to Middlesbrough. The move doubled my wages, but Lorraine refused to move north and I stopped going to addicts’ meetings. You might think my relapse was provoked by sharing a house with a fellow alcoholic (not that Paul Gascoigne recognised he was an addict at the time), but in truth, I started gambling a month before Gazza joined the team.

I withdrew £10,000 from the bank, stuck £4,000 of it on a Scottish football accumulator (a bet on a series of football games) and lost it.

Next day I lumped on Dewsbury, a second-tier rugby league team, to win a match against Leigh by 20 points.

They were too obscure to be given Teletext updates so I took to ringing up the lady on the club’s switchboard for the score every few minutes. They lost.

As night follows day, I started drinking again. Not in the old way but indoors with Gazza.

We would sit in the house and play a mad game Gazza made up for a laugh. Looking back it could have killed one of us.

Gazza was hooked on sleeping tablets. He thought if he slept most of the day he couldn’t eat and put on weight. He would deal tablets out, we’d all put cash in the middle and take a pill with every glass of red wine. Whoever stayed up longest won the pot.

Life with Gazza was lived at 100 miles an hour but his wildness suited me. He would never wear any clothes round the house and, despite us having six bedrooms, he would always kip on the sofa, which added to that sense of an unreal existence.

Gazza kept drinking when we were both selected for an England World Cup training camp in 1998. Big mistake. I spent the evening with Tony Adams in the coffee shop, and we two recovering alcoholics had to throw him in the pool to sober him up.

When manager Glenn Hoddle told him he was out of the squad, Gazza turned into Keith Moon and started smashing up the furniture. He was in a terrible state when I caught up with him in his room, bleeding, crying, not making sense. It was awful to see him like that. Having lived with him for three months, I knew he was in a bad place.

A month later, I went to see him at The Priory at Roehampton, expecting to talk to him about how I was now back in recovery, taking one day at a time.

He was very jittery, one moment talking about wanting to get well, next minute about doing a bunk. A nurse mentioned that Eric Clapton, a volunteer helper there, had asked to see us.

He joined us in Gazza’s room and was very gracious, telling us the story of his recovery and giving advice. As soon as he left, Gazza sat up and said: ‘Who the f***’s that tramp?’ He didn’t have a clue about much beyond football.

I’ll always treasure Gazza’s friendship. I just hope the penny drops one day and he thinks: ‘I’ve had enough of this.’

Everything I won in my football career came while I was at the height of my addiction. I could never live in the moment and enjoy the team’s achievements. I only thought about what it all meant for drinking and gambling.

Even when I was at my best as a footballer in five alcohol-free years at Aston Villa and Portsmouth, I was losing millions. I wasn’t gambling all the time, but when I did it would spiral until I’d cleaned out my bank account.

Losing £35,000 in a binge was manageable because I was earning big wages. That’s how losing everything I earned, close to £7 million, crept up on me gradually.

It wasn’t just about the money. Those binges made me secretive, defensive and irritable beyond belief. It was the final straw for my first marriage and would finish my second one, too.

In 2002, Aston Villa were playing Charlton Athletic away and I was on the phone to the bookies for the whole afternoon like I was a train with no brakes flying down the tracks. I just couldn’t stop.

I remember sitting at the foot of my bed and thinking that if I couldn’t control the urge, I’d have to take drastic action.

What if I broke all my fingers so I couldn’t pick up the phone to dial the bookies? I pictured getting a hammer and doing the fingers on my right hand, one by one. But a hammer isn’t the sort of thing you get from room service.

I was trying to get on an even keel in 2003 when the worst thing that could have happened dropped through my letterbox.

It was a letter from my trade body, the Professional Footballers’ Association, saying that now I’d turned 35, I could access my £750,000 pension.

I didn’t even know I had it, let alone that I could draw the whole lot out.

Those months when I lost everything are a haze. Like an alcoholic’s blackout, only fragments remain.

I’d put 60 grand on a match, lose it and then put 80 grand on another to try to claw it back.

I’d have £15,000 on Roger Federer to win a match and then put £10,000 on the first batsman to be out in that day’s Test. It was insane.

By February 2003, I was at the very end of my tether. When I was offered a rehab place in Arizona, I was as reluctant as the last time.

I stayed for a month and managed to kick the gambling, but as soon as I got back I swapped one addiction for another – drink.

I wouldn’t sober up properly for another 13 years.

That’s why, today, I need to attend meetings. Hearing people’s stories helps me remember why it’s worth not giving up. Talking is the only therapy that works for me.

During the first lockdown, I stopped going to Gamblers Anonymous, but carried on with Alcoholics Anonymous, thinking I could kill two birds with one stone.

But without GA my shield had gone. When a lot of my television and speaking work was cancelled due to Covid, I started to scheme. I tried to double our savings by gambling and lost everything, even the deposit for a house.

For me, gambling has always been the cruellest addiction, the most difficult to live with and the most hideous for my family because it is invisible until it is too late.

I haven’t touched cocaine for 27 years. Drink helped me to be the clown, to have a million faces, but I’ve not touched a drop for two years.

I have reached the stage where I’m not going to drink because I know I can’t stop. And I’ve not placed a bet for a year.

I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my whole life and I don’t have anything apart from my family and a television job [with Sky Sport] I love.

I’ve lost millions and almost destroyed my self-respect, but the fog in my mind is finally clearing.

© Paul Merson, 2021

  • Hooked, by Paul Merson, is published by Headline on September 16, priced £20. 
  • To pre-order a copy for £18, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before September 26. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.

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