Bygones: How Paul Merson’s class still shone through at Boro despite roller coaster spell

HELLO AGAIN: Middlesbrough and Paul Merson, in action for Middlesbrough against former club Arsenal back in 1997. Picture: John Giles/PA.
HELLO AGAIN: Middlesbrough and Paul Merson, in action for Middlesbrough against former club Arsenal back in 1997. Picture: John Giles/PA.
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NOWADAYS, head-turning transfers to Championship clubs are increasingly commonplace, with Wolves’ £15.8m deal to sign Porto midfielder Ruben Neves likely to represent the latest stellar case in point.

Twenty years ago, business was rather more moribund in English football’s second tier. That is until Middlesbrough landed their own ‘Magic Man.’

Middlesbrough manager Bryan Robson with Paul Gascoigne.

Middlesbrough manager Bryan Robson with Paul Gascoigne.

Previously, the ‘Riverside Revolution’ had seen the likes of Fabrizio Ravanelli, Juninho and Emerson all head to Teesside amid much fanfare. But in its own way, the signing of Arsenal and England striker Paul Merson was as eye-catching and audacious as any of Boro’s moves.

This week, Boro have reportedly forked out £5m to sign a 29-year-old in former Leeds United captain Jonny Howson and they did likewise two decades ago to bring in Merson, making him the most expensive ever signed by a non-Premier League club at the time.

Merson had been a regular for the Gunners in 1996-97 – only Nigel Winterburn started more league games in that season.

But the Bryan Robson factor – allied to a hefty £20,000 per week pay packet and five-year deal – ultimately proved irresistible for Merson, even if he did harbour initial doubts.

I cannot wait for this new and major stage in my career to begin, and I am committed to Boro’s fight for promotion.

Paul Merson, back in 1997.

Perhaps what helped to also tip the scales was the fact that Arsenal were willing to sell him, identifying £5m for a player who would turn 30 in the following season as good business – a ‘good deal for the club and player’ as Arsene Wenger put it.

On his move, a candid Merson, speaking shortly after his signing in July 1997, said: “I never wanted to move.

“It was a bolt out of the blue when manager Arsene Wenger told me about Middlesbrough’s offer.

“I was convinced he would turn it down. It never occurred to me at any time that Arsenal would sell me.

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger

“I cannot wait for this new and major stage in my career to begin, and I am committed to Boro’s fight for promotion.”

Such frankness and candour characterised Merson’s tumultuous near 14-month stint on Teesside, which ultimately ended amid much acrimony and bitterness when he moved to Aston Villa in September 1998.

The passing of time is likely to have eased the extent of ill- feeling felt towards Merson for his hugely controversial decision to force through a move to the Midlands – after questioning Boro’s ambition and hinting at a drinking and gambling culture in the dressing room.

Some of it will linger among those Boro supporters with unforgiving natures and long memories. But plenty more will also remember Merson’s time on Teesside with fondness – even if it was curtailed much earlier than they would have preferred.

Amid all the controversial utterances made by Merson around his departure – many of which were expressed in a column in The News of the World, his declaration that he would take Boro back to the big time was far from trash talk.

The Londoner emphatically delivered in that respect and while difficulties were apparent off-the-field in his adjustment to life up north, he did not let them affect him on it.

After a quiet start, Merson scored his first goal in Boro’s 1-1 draw at Stockport County and did not look back on the pitch.

His bewitching form helped Boro into the business positions at the top of the table, in what proved a compelling battle for automatic promotion with Nottingham Forest, Charlton and north-east rivals Sunderland.

Individual sub-plots saw Merson joust for supremacy with fellow divisional big-hitters in Pierre Van Hooijdonk and Kevin Phillips in an enthralling campaign.

His dazzling form was such that he was recalled by England – going onto represent his country in the 1998 World Cup.

Talisman can be an overused term, but it perfectly described Merson’s impact for Boro in 1997-98 which ended in automatic promotion along with Forest.

He provided an impressive total of 16 goals and proved the creator supreme. His form also helped the Teessiders reach the final of the League Cup, with the gifted forward orchestrating a memorable win over Liverpool in the two-legged semi-final.

On the pitch, it was ultimately mission accomplished for Merson. But all the while, his difficulties away from it in assimilating into life on Teesside were seemingly nagging away.

Boro’s hierarchy sought to help his readjustment at every turn, mindful of his well-chronicled issues with alcohol and gambling which were publically revealed in late 1994 – with Merson subsequently embarking on a rehabilitation programme.

Merson was granted special dispensation to travel up to training from his family home in Hertfordshire by train.

Ultimately, it proved too much with the club setting up Merson with a rented house with his brother, with Paul Gascoigne later moving in with him in a bid to ease his loneliness away from family when he joined Boro.

Perhaps predictably, it proved somewhat chaotic.

All the time while Merson’s demons lurked, he helped carry the team on the pitch at times and lead Boro to promotion.

Yet it had been a burdensome weight and in the build-up to his second season on Teesside, things became too much.

Merson demanded a move and spoke in a newspaper column about quitting Boro ‘for the good of my health’, saying he feared ‘falling over the edge’ if he stayed there.

He also questioned Boro’s ambition, with his incendiary comments prompting a backlash from Boro, with Robson and chief executive Keith Lamb both being vociferous in their criticism of Merson and his representatives.

Ultimately, the end game was approaching with Merson eventually moving to Villa for £6.75m, leaving behind a furious club and an even more incensed fanbase.

Speaking at the time, Lamb said: “Everyone connected with Middlesbrough has been let down by Paul Merson: the fans, the players, his friends.

“Paul Merson knew how the club had been treated by other international players and when he came here he went on record saying that he would never treat the club that way. He has just treated the club in exactly the same way and I hope he treats his new club better.

“If he takes a moment to reflect, I hope he will remember how everybody bent over backwards to accommodate him and his family’s particular problems. If this is his way of repaying us, I find it strange, and to say the club lacks ambition is a nonsense.”

It was an unedifying end to a roller coaster spell at Boro for Merson.

But his sheer class on the pitch was never in doubt.