Paul Merson: Football, gambling & me… and more

by | Oct 26, 2021

It felt like a spin-off from the recent BBC-broadcast “Fever Pitch: The Rise of the Premier League.” That soap-operatic documentary’s grittiest storyline concerned the gambling problem among footballers and its exacerbation by the player-wage hyper-inflation of the mid-1990s.

Ex-Manchester United and Newcastle United star Keith Gillespie probably had more camera time. But ex-Arsenal star and current TV pundit Paul Merson ‘got his own show,’ entitled “Paul Merson: Football, Gambling & Me,” which recently received a thoroughly deserved prime-time airing on BBC1.

Merson knew what he wanted from the documentary. He asked varying forms of the question “Why am I an addictive gambler?” at the end of almost every scene in the first half of the hour-long programme, which got a little repetitive until he eventually saw the answer in a big-screen showing of his brain patterns. And, at that stage, we had watched a compelling, powerful insight into gambling addiction, a convincing case for its prosecution as a bona-fide disease rather than a preventable, character flaw. Then, the doc got all ‘Panorama’ on us. And got more compelling, powerful and insightful still.

It was far from a TV debut for the story of Merson’s drink, drugs and gambling addictions. A quick YouTube scan for “Merson Gambling” takes you to a range of his interviews, on programmes including one of the inexplicable Harry Redknapp-based ITV shows, “Harry’s Heroes” (with a bizarro three minutes of Merson and ex-Arsenal colleague David Seaman, looking daft in full cycling gear) and Sky Sports’ “The Debate.” However, the BBC doc goes deeper. Merson presents, narrates and interviews. And despite his shortcomings in all three disciplines, his message still powers through.

The first half covered what the programme blurb called Merson’s attempts to “understand why his life has been so blighted by gambling.” It began with a curious dressing-room photo of a semi-slumped Merson watching, with almost murderous contempt, as team-mates Perry Groves and Alan Smith cradle the League championship trophy.

“I am Paul Merson…and I am an addict,” booms out, amid a precis of his career (and I’d forgotten that he played in the 1998 World Cup finals too). The origins of his gambling were traced back to his early Arsenal days, when former youth team-mate Wes Reid produced a photo of Merson gambling at cards with unspecified team-mate “Don,” as he looks on. and translates his own expression in the photo as “Enough already, Merse.”

Merson wept. But the programme soon rose above the tears. Merson visited clinical neuropsychology professor Barbara Sahakian at Cambridge University for tests of his reaction to gambling scenarios. And at Imperial College London, he participated in Dr David Erritzoe and his team’s work on “how gamblers’ brains are impacted by their addiction.” He underwent a scan to show his brain’s responses to “70 short clips of things healthy people find pleasurable” (although the ketchup-splattered bacon sandwich among them didn’t exactly scream “health”) and casino-based “images of gambling.”

These were hugely fascinating, despite knowing the results. Merson’s gambling MO was instantly exposed at Cambridge. And his punch-the-air delight when he “tricks the game”(“f***ing done it, told ya”) exposed his temporary but pure joy which outweighed the “f**k me, seriously?” head-in-hand loss he suffered moments earlier, edited down to six seconds for dramatic impact in the doc but addiction scarily bared for all to see.

And, yes, the brain reacted far stronger to gambling images than food, nature and family. Even though, as Merson admitted straight after the scan, “I’ve never been a casino man. And at the start it didn’t really interest me.” However, “as it went on it became a bit more exciting.” After hearing that, the programme’s regular updates on how long it had been since Merson’s previous bet were huge reassurance that those casino images hadn’t triggered his addiction.

Six minutes on the golf course with fellow addicted former footballers felt like little more than a device to highlight footballers links to gambling, rather than addiction itself. And no amount of dinky editing could hide Merson’s, ahem, “non-golfer’s” swing. Keith Gillespie briefly reprised the story he told well on “The Rise of the Premier League,” with added emphasis one manager’s role (“I’ve got Alex Ferguson giving me money to put bets on for him”).

But these links were as effectively explained by Merson’s car radio as he drove from the course (“888 sport now gives you treble the odds…”). ANY five minutes, of Talksport Radio’s match commentaries (on, amongst other competitions, the Sky Bet Championship) would do that trick too. As Merson said, the 2005 Gambling Act (perhaps New Labour’s worst domestic legislation) “allowed the links…to explode” through advertising. “Today it’s almost impossible to watch a Premier League game without thinking about betting.”

And here the doc took a welcome deep dive into betting company insidiousness. Merson spoke to “reformed gambling addict” Mark Zarb-Cousin, a campaigner “for betting reform, through his group ‘Clean Up Gambling.’” He is also an ex-spokesman for ex-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, with plenty of political baggage to unpack, if that’s your thing. But here, he was excellent, highlighting to a wide-eyed, open-mouthed Merson what he discovered about the gambling industry “after I gave up” (though examining how he did that might also have helped Merson and informed to viewers).

The industry’s marketing techniques and targets are common enough. “Remind everyone to gamble and bet every time there’s a match on,” Zarb-Cousin said. But betting companies’ (ab)use of data harvested from their customers as they provide that custom still stopped you in your tracks when said out loud. “60% of the industry’s profits come from people like us,” Zarb-Cousin noted. “People who are…or are at risk of becoming addicted. It’s not in their interests to reduce addiction.”

He then showed Merson the data harvested on “someone I know” by an un-named company, which gave them a life story. Of course, “they knew he was a gambling addict” and “know the (customers) who are addicted and the one’s that aren’t. But they are using the data that they could be using to prevent harm, to actually make it worse.” Merson found this “scary” when told about it. He later termed it “pure evil.” And “pure evil” returned to mind when he met members of ‘Gambling with Lives,’ a support group for families of gambling-related suicide victims.

Annie, whose husband Luke died five months earlier, did not hold back. “The only people that knew he had a problem were Luke and the company he was gambling with…they know what they are doing. There’ll be another gambling-related suicide today, tomorrow…” Chillingly, those ARE the statistics. And she said plenty more to leave you cold at betting company behaviour. It felt important to watch and listen to her and the others from the group who opened up about their experiences.

Group leaders later explained their campaign against betting ads, as the 2005 Gambling Act is undergoing its first-ever governmental review. “We’re not very hopeful, if I’m honest. We’re not convinced the politicians are listening,” said group co-founder Liz Ritchie.

The industry wasn’t listening either. The doc’s closing credits are immediately preceded by written responses from The Gambling Commission, The Betting and Gaming Council and bookies William Hill. All major on “responsible” betting, noting that “at least 20%” of TV and radio ads are “safer gambling messages” (read at a pace discouraging attention, like the ‘bits at the end’ of so many ‘special offer’ ads). The BGC couldn’t “recognise many of the claims” in the doc and “completely” rejected “the suggestion that our industry targets vulnerable customers.” While William Hill were “disappointed to hear the comments regarding betting advertising.”

And Merson himself pre-empted some of the bodies’ own claims. “The rate of problem gambling is 0.5%,” the BGC said, not telling us 0.5% of what. Merson quoted a “House of Lords report” numbering UK gambling addicts at 330,000. The BGC added that “30 million people in Britain enjoy a flutter and the vast majority do so safely and responsibly.” Which doesn’t refute the 330,000. And as for William Hill’s claim to “promote important safer gambling initiatives like deposit limits,” Merson noted that while “these companies say ‘set your limit,’ you don’t set your limit if you’re a compulsive gambler.”

There was plenty of incidental light alongside the darkness. Merson’s eldest son with his third wife Kate (who has a disappointingly non-speaking part) has one heck of a left foot on him (remember the name, Freddie Merson), which clearly allows the former Arsenal star to forgive the lad his Harry Kane shirt. “Thirty-odd months ago, that would have been my bin,” Merson grinned, as bottles smashed on the ground off-camera.

And there was multi-reasoned fascination with a yarn about handing Harry Redknapp a £30,000-filled bag before playing for Portsmouth at Millwall, in 2003. Merson joyously recalled £50 notes blowing down the touchline after he scored, and Redknapp leapt in celebration, forgetting that he’d stuffed the £30k in his track-suit trousers (though I can’t legally suggest that fans assumed “Readies” Redknapp had, literally, pocketed another bung). And he claimed the game, which Portsmouth won 5-0, was “the best I ever played in my whole footballing career,” which Arsenal fans might genuinely find…fascinating.

These were comic reliefs, though, in the original literary sense of the word. As Merson said in his concluding comments, “betting companies are exploiting ill people.” And if the documentary seemed suspiciously well-timed to pressurise the government into action against this exploitation, then…good. And those tempted to see typical BBC bias in this stance can do one.

In fact, by this closing stage, the doc’s title felt a little misleading. This was less a doc about “Football and Gambling” than gambling addiction itself, with football’s links to and promotion of the industry just one part of a societal problem. And a smaller part than that of organised betting companies themselves.

It risked accusations of emotional exploitation. “I don’t think I’ve got another recovery in me,” Merson semi-sobs at the golf course, inviting viewers to semi-sob, too. But his semi-sobs were sincere, unlike Joey Barton’s remorse in countless interviews over the years, vowing to never again be whatever it was he’d just been a prick about, before being a prick about something else very soon.

And the doc could feel designed for Merson’s personal benefit. Occasionally he seemed a tad too keen to pick up on any evidence that “I’m an ill person trying to get well” not a bad person. “So that tells you that,” Merson almost begged when shown the results of his brain scans. Cynics will also note that Merson has a book out, called ‘Hooked,’ and that the doc could almost be ‘the film of the book.’

But the documentary offered insight, education, warnings, humour and hope. A good piece of work and a very good watch.