A Fraction Of The Whole: Paul Merson

Celebrating the game’s minutiae, one tiny fragment at a time

Past Michael Owen raises the bar impossibly high, while Present Michael Owen watches on YouTube for the millionth time on another one of his days off, lamenting the fact that Twitter hadn't been invented yet in 1998, as this would've made for a cracking tweet.

It was the day of my thirteenth birthday when Michael Owen scored a career-defining goal against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup. I remember every glorious detail without needing to consult a replay. The brief look up from David Beckham as he plays the ball in-field. Owen’s first touch with the outside of his right boot. The dip of the shoulder that fooled the Argentinean defence. The onrushing Paul Scholes arriving in vain. Owen’s expression of assured disbelief as he runs away with energy still to spare.

Another detail swept up in the drama of the moment is something I recall just as easily, and it comes from the substitutes’ bench. Synonymous with the memory of that goal is the reaction of one Paul Merson, who rises with the rest of the squad to celebrate Owen’s strike. As he leads the applause, he turns around to be captured by the camera as he says something to Teddy Sheringham. It’s too quick to be lip-read, much less heard, but you can see everything you need to know in his face. A mixture of incredulity and wonder at what he’s just seen, transmitted to a global audience as everyone else marvels at what’s just occurred.

The reason I recall Merson’s face with such fondness is because of the way it communicates so much in such a short space of time – he is seen for a mere second before the picture cuts back to a breathless Owen jogging back to resume the game. At such a young age, I felt as if this was the commencement of some exciting new dawn. I had watched my first World Cup four years previously, when England failed to join the party in the USA. Even at the age of eleven I could acknowledge the patriotic power of home advantage offered by Euro 96.

But Owen’s goal was something I had never seen before. England had just shown that they had something no-one else did, a weapon that could cause whatever damage was necessary, as long as it was deployed in the right direction. It seemed so easy, as if England had just discovered a cheat code on a video game. It seemed so incomprehensibly fortuitous that suddenly we had someone that could just do whatever he wanted, and he just fell into the lap of every future England manager that would be able to select him. My mind, swamped as it was with nascent hormones and birthday cake sugars, could not process the significance of this goal. It was more than just one goal in one game. This was something seismic and I knew that straight away.

That brief moment, where Merson giggled and shook his disbelieving head for the world to see, was like looking into a mirror. Merson looked the way that I felt, and it would later offer succour in the face of England’s eventual elimination. To see an actual professional footballer react just like I had… that meant that it wasn’t just youthful naivety on my part. It meant that I was right and that eventually he would elevate beyond the prescribed heights of the England team, and together they would do something amazing.

Of course, it wouldn’t quite work out that way. The goal would weigh heavily on Owen’s shoulders, and the intrinsic declaration of promise would unwittingly taint public perceptions of his career (Click here to read more on Owen’s dubious legacy). For all that, the excitement, shock and joy I felt at that moment, mere hours into my teenage years, is something I will always remember, because Paul Merson is there as a totemistic reminder of the chemicals that rushed through a brain yet to be sullied by hormones, adolescence, and the crushing reality of being an England supporter. And I shall forever be thankful that Owen did not hit, to use Merson’s Soccer Saturday parlance, the ‘beans on toast’.

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Paul Scholes 3:16 – or – How I Learned To Stop Worrying About Football and Love Adam Bomb

“Can football still be considered a sport? Or is it something else? It possesses characters, narrative, plot. It attracts more attention for what happens on the field rather than on. The game still continues, of course, but the edifice around it suggests that sport is just an aspect of what football has become. Is it, in fact, sports entertainment?”

Recently I wrote a flippant piece imagining a pop culture mash-up of sorts between football and professional wrestling. Since then, two things have happened that have compelled me to stretch this comparison further, like some poor sap trapped in a Crippler Crossface.

Firstly, I read an article by Rory Smith in The Blizzard, quoted above, which posits the theory that contemporary media coverage of football has unwittingly thrust the game into the realm of sports entertainment, the term with which pro wrestling is synonymous.

Secondly, Paul Scholes emerged from retirement to dust off his boots, to stage an unlikely comeback for Manchester United…

I used to watch wrestling. Like squabbling brothers we no longer get along, despite their playing a vital role in my formative years. As a naive child I cheered for the likes of Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior. As a teenager I matured during the ‘Attitude’ years of Stone Cold Steve Austin and D-Generation X. As a young adult I marvelled at the curious hinterland where scripted drama and legitimate conflict overlapped. As such, I have often viewed different forms of entertainment through the prism of this bizarre, often misunderstood world, where scripted beefs and simulated sport combine.

The return of Paul Scholes made so much sense and yet so little sense at the same time. Viewed through ginger-tinted spectacles, it was a romantic, heroic return of a legend, and a sensible addition to a depleted midfield. In purely football terms, it seemed perfectly logical. But something about it roused the slumbering wrestling fan within me. The style of the last-minute announcement, with United’s players not finding out until hours before the game, smacked of the sort of stunt booking one would see in wrestling, where eleventh hour interference from an outsider is a staple trope. When Scholes leapt from the Etihad substitutes bench to pad back on to a competitive football pitch, it may have lacked the dynamism of, say, The Undertaker announcing his return from a lengthy hiatus by riding in on a motorcycle. But in terms of its shock value, the way it changed the game, and it’s drama as a spectacle, the two events made for convincing, if unconventional, bedfellows.

A more pragmatic view would have it that it undermined the confidence of the rest of United’s midfielders. Darron Gibson saw the writing on the wall that he frequently missed during shooting practise, and left the club to join Everton. Ravel Morrison has decamped to West Ham, where his prodigious talent will war with his self-destructive streak in a battle for his footballing soul. United may well prove better off without them both, but if Scholes was what finally ushered them to the exit, it was akin to dumping a girl by kissing someone else in front of her – thrilling yet tactless, and lacking a certain class.
Another surprise was that it begged the question – why do so few footballers turn their back on retirement? Wrestlers are notorious for finding it hard to walk away, unable to leave behind an all-consuming lifestyle that sustains them. Mick Foley famously retired from wrestling in 2000, only to return weeks later for a lucrative WrestleMania pay day, where he retired again for real. In January 2012, he was confirmed as one of the 30 participants in the Royal Rumble event. Ric Flair continues to wrestle to this day despite numerous abortive attempts to retire, having first laced up boots in 1972. Occasionally footballers change their mind when it comes to international retirement, with the results ranging from the sublime (Zidane in 2006) to the sub-par (Carragher in 2012). In time we may look back on the comeback of Scholes and see it as a groundbreaking event, the moment a door was opened to shed light on retired players, who may wonder what their bodies and minds may be capable of after a similar break.

In the case of both Foley and Flair, as with so many others, their inability to step away from the limelight succumbs to the rule of diminishing returns. Earlier triumphs are tainted by shambling, inept attempts at reliving long-distant glories. The early signs for Scholes (and passing completion statistics) indicate that the comeback could prove a masterstoke. If his level of performance should wane, it would betray the send-off he was given last May. Scholes’s final game was the Champions League final against Barcelona, and despite a comprehensive 3-1 defeat, there was a scrum amongst Barca players to swap shirts with a player identified as one of their spiritual kin. Andres Iniesta won, and it seemed like a symbolic, if somewhat belated, passing of a torch, with Scholes ceding the limelight as Iniesta enjoys his peak years.

It is rare for a wrestler to return from retirement with renewed vigour, but one example springs to mind. Shawn Michaels was forced to retire in 1998 due to a debilitating back injury. After five years of convalescence he returned, and stunned the industry by being as good as he ever was in his prime, winning the World Heavyweight Championship. Scholes may yet prove to be like Michaels, and leave people ruing his absence rather than malign an ill-judged return. If anything, Michaels bears comparison to Scholes’s team-mate, Ryan Giggs. Both men were considered too old, and yet still too good. Both men (Michaels’ five-year hiatus notwithstanding) experienced similar career trajectories. They both emerged as flying, precocious pin-ups, with talent to burn. Growing older, they became mainstays through consistent performances, particularly in the big matches. As they aged they continued to raise the bar by modifying their game, whilst showing their employers up for failing to promote new talent to replace them. (One exception is in their proclivity for scandal; Giggs maintained a monastic lifestyle throughout his career, until his much-publicised affair and subsequent waving of a futile, skyward fist at Twitter for besmirching his name. Michaels’ career was the exact inverse, with a tendency for controversy eventually eroded by the spiritual lure of born-again Christianity.)

If Giggs is football’s answer to The Heartbreak Kid, then it’s because they share common ground in a founding principle in wrestling – the gimmick. A wrestler’s gimmick is their personality, the manifestation of character, the thing that makes them stand out from the rest. The ‘Million Dollar Man’ Ted DiBiase arrogantly flaunted his wealth on the way to the ring. Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts would terrorise opponents and fans alike with a live snake. The Gobbedly Gooker was a man dressed as a giant turkey, who would go on to embody the phenomenon of ‘wrestlecrap‘ by hatching from a giant egg.

Just as the most interesting wrestlers have the best gimmicks, so do the most interesting footballers. Increasingly, the media pigeonhole football personalities of interest according to their own, easily identifiable USP’s. In this era of homogenised, media-trained bores, anybody that bucks the trend by demonstrating personality are exalted out of proportion, and are considered oddities, rather than just the lone, sane voices in a world awash with tedious, rent-a-quote post-match interviews. Mario Balotelli is an enigmatic, child-like buffoon. Joey Barton is a Nietszche-quoting reformed thug. Harry Redknapp, to his evident consternation, is seen as a cock-er-knee spiv. Craig Bellamy blends genres by casting himself as a sort of philanthropist tosspot.

Scholes’s gimmick was almost subversive in it’s anti-gimmickness. His on-field persona eschewed the passion of the box-to-box midfield general, or the bombast of the tricksy winger. Scholes was a no-frills performer that found the spectacular in the mundane. Keeping the ball, savouring possession and carving a few feet of space from mere inches became his art. He was the footballing equivalent of a solid mat technician, such as Bret Hart or Chris Benoit. Both, like Scholes, were utterly bereft of charisma, but more than made up for it with peerless technical acumen. Scholes was technically magnificent, the footballer’s footballer, just as Benoit was the wrestler’s wrestler. Both men were throwbacks, publicity shy, rarely giving interviews. They were devoted to their vocations in the purest way possible, in wanting to excel without wishing to discuss it, in seeking the kudos of approval without courting it. (Here the comparison ends, as Benoit’s career and life came to a tragic end.)

His bad tackling has become a lazy comic trope used to deride him, whilst simultaneously managing to overlook the fact that he got away with an awful lot, despite the occasional red card. In this regard, you can also see a likeness to the late Eddie Guerrero circa 2003. His gimmick at the time was captured by his catchphrase, ‘Lie, cheat, steal’, and would see him living up to that mantra by doing whatever it took to win, without compromising his ‘good guy’ status. Similarly, Scholes’s tackling, which veered wildly from the clumsy to the barbaric, was dismissed with an almost-universal chuckle because – bless ‘im! – he was rubbish at tackling, wasn’t he?

In short, Scholes spurned the very notion of showmanship. While we all know that wrestling’s not sport, just as in the field of acting, the best in the business are the ones that can convince you that it’s real. The best ones are good talkers, and can hold court on a microphone, trying to convince you that they really do intend to pulverise their enemies. The best promos are the ones that ‘talk them into the building’, (see CM Punk, Paul Heyman and Jake Roberts) drawing in rapt audiences desperate to see the denouement of a bitter feud. 

After Scholes’s return, a disappointed Roberto Mancini spoke to ITV’s Gabriel Clarke, who pressed him for a response regarding Vincent Kompany’s contentious red card. Undeterred by Mancini’s reticence, Clarke pushed and pushed, rephrasing the question, desperate for the Italian to get himself into trouble. This is what the media has made of pre- and post- match interviews, turning them into antagonistic, inflammatory wrestling-style promos. They are no longer solely intended to extricate news on whether a left-back’s groin strain has cleared up, but to extract exclamations of war, digestible, ready-for-air soundbites that stoke the fires. Journalists and broadcasters poke, probe and agitate, mining spite.

Nowadays, interviews tell the stories which feed the narrative of the match. Rafa Benitez pulling out a slip of paper to angrily recite his infamous list of “facts” regarding Sir Alex Ferguson was the equivalent of Benitez telling Fergie that he was gonna lay the smack down on his candy ass. Kevin Keegan’s “I’d love it if we beat them” address is remembered now, in the light of his ultimate defeat, as the sign of a man descending inexorably into madness. At the time, he was telling Ferguson (That man again! The cerebral assassin! The dirtiest player in the game!) that he was gonna take that championship belt from around his waist, and watcha gonna do, brotha, watcha gonna do, when the Toon Army runs wild on you!!! (History also forgets how Sky Sports cameras cut away just as Keegan ripped off his t-shirt and flexed his muscles inanely, like a ‘roided-up chimp).

"Well, y'know something, Mean Gene.."

In football, just as in wrestling, the storylines are just as important as the matches themselves. The preamble to ITV’s coverage of Manchester United’s visit to Liverpool in the FA Cup dwelt on the thorny backdrop of Luis Suarez vs. Patrice Evra. When Wayne Bridge faced erstwhile love rival John Terry on a football pitch for the first time after their very public personal feud, the image of Bridge refusing to accept Terry’s handshake took on the gravitas of, say, Hulk Hogan and Andre The Giant sizing each other up before battle. In both cases, this was wrestling-style promotion for the purposes of football. Smith gave the example of how, the morning after Barcelona eviscerated Arsenal 3-1 in the Champions League last season, the papers focussed on Arsene Wenger’s accusation that the referee killed the game: “The beauty of Barcelona was relegated to second billing behind the whisper of illusory controversy.”

"How do you expect me to play for England again when you've boffed my missus?"

It is this notion of illusory controversy that made the return of Scholes so bizarre. That a player so averse to publicity would court the idea of doing something so outlandish in the face of such anathema was entirely at odds with the man that everyone thought they knew. Perhaps this is the most encouraging thing about his return. By allowing his sheer enthusiasm for the game he loves to overcome such an instinct for shyness struck something of a blow to the edifice surrounding football, as cited by Smith at the top of this article.

To quote Smith once more: “Everything, in football, is heightened. Reality is not enough, so it is expanded, meaning is extrapolated, significance is assumed.”

This is as true of Paul Scholes as it was for Adam Bomb…

"My favourite player is Frankie Bunn."

Theo Walcott and the issue of blame

It seems that, in English football, the greatest crime is unfulfilled potential, something that this nation has rich history in.

Two of the greatest midfielders of their respective generations, the Pauls Gascoigne and Scholes, ultimately failed to deliver what was expected due to the respective perils of personal demons and disenchantment through mismanagement. English football’s modern history is littered with talents blighted by a litany of ‘if only’s: if only he’d stayed focussed, if only he’d joined a bigger club, if only he’d worked harder.

England supporters, starved as they are of success, refuse to see it happen again.

Enter Theo Walcott. His current prescribed role seems to be that of perennial under-achiever, a forever disengaged black sheep who continues to fail to deliver on his vast promise. It is bizarre that someone such as ‘lil T’eo, nothing if not a milquetoast, is such a polarising figure, with pundits such as Alan Hansen and Chris Waddle condemning him for his lack of intelligence. Such suggestions, which he struggles manfully to mask with his pace and derring-do, stymie his progress, as well as the notion that he is an elite player, a game-changer.

In the pursuit of this open criticism by fans and pundits alike, it seems bizarre that no-one has been looking to blame anyone, especially when you consider that it can be excellent fun. It would be churlish, perhaps unpleasant to simply hold one person responsible for such a crime against football (the worst crime there is!), but it seems that one man has a lot to answer for, but continues to evade reprimand, like a fleet-footed cat-burglar. That man is one Sven-Goran Eriksson.

How odd that a man responsible for thrusting Walcott upon a ridiculously oversized pedestal would somehow escape censure, given that he has been treated with such ignominy by English football fans himself (Eriksson, of course, was once chided for his failure to take England beyond the quarter-finals of a major tournament, a level they have yet to reach since the Swede’s departure five years ago). English fans have perhaps wilted in their hostility against the man who failed to get the most out of England’s cloyingly-named golden generation, in the light of Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello failing harder and faster than Eriksson ever really did. Perhaps it is this forced reassessment that has allowed him to escape scot-free for Crimes Against Walcott.

Picking Walcott was the last desperate throw of the dice for a condemned man. His left-field inclusion represented a courage and audacity that had been conspicuous by its absence throughout the rest of Eriksson’s tenure as England manager, a courage that was lacking when it was most required (such as in his compromising accommodation of both Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, and in failing to make Paul Scholes the creative fulcrum, as opposed to David Beckham). Eriksson put all of his chips on Walcott’s head – itself only just old enough to legally gamble – and unwittingly broadened the parameters of his career expectations forevermore.

To hell with the consequences!”, Eriksson almost certainly would’ve said to himself, alone, into his bathroom mirror, before sheepishly questioning his sanity whilst flossing. He wouldn’t need to answer to the repercussions. He wouldn’t be expected to worry for Walcott’s future development. As it would transpire, an English public clamouring for the fresh impetus that Walcott’s inclusion promised, would remain wondering, as an out-of-his-depth Walcott didn’t play a minute of football in Germany.

If he hadn’t been picked, his career trajectory may well have followed a similar path to that of Gareth Bale. He, too, was signed by a top London club from Southampton as a seventeen-year-old, based on similar qualities, most notably skill, pace, but above all potential. Bale did not suffer from the same burden of expectation (which would have just as much to do with Bale being Welsh and not English, of course), and was allowed to develop whilst maintaining a safe distance from the unforgiving glare of the spotlight. When Bale endured a run of 24 Premier League games without winning for Tottenham, it was treated as a joke, an amusing curio and nothing more. By this time Bale was aged 20, and was struggling to displace Benoit Assou-Ekotto as left-back. We all know what happened next.

For Walcott, his fast-track to the full England side saddled him with the millstone of being the next Wayne Rooney or Michael Owen, the precocious youth capable of sparking fresh life into the fading golden generation. Since then, he hasn’t been afforded the same patience that Bale was. I was recently reminded of Walcott’s first Arsenal goal, which came in the 2007 Carling Cup final against Chelsea. Watching the highlights of the game, in the aftermath of that opening goal, the commentary damned him with faint praise, speaking of how he was “turning things around at last” and “finally delivering on his potential”. Then aged 18, it was only his 28th game in Arsenal colours. When did this become an age to prove one’s calibre?

Perhaps it’s the fault of his prodigial predecessors for raising the bar too high – Rooney, Owen, Scholes, Gascoigne. The expectations were too high because, when fans want success and get none, they try and manufacture their own trophies. They wanted a player to frighten the world. Walcott is still only running around with a bedsheet over his head, flailing wildly to remove it to show the bared teeth beneath.

It seems that Walcott has been around forever, but he is still only 22. His career thus far has hardly been a failure, and yet it seems as though it is, as if we’re nearing the point where backs are turned on him and we look to the next great white hope, which was Walcott’s first prescribed role when Eriksson gambled on his future in 2006.

Maybe Walcott’s greatest contribution to England’s cause will be to deflect attention from the next crop of youngsters, so that they can prosper in relative peace. In the meantime, he will continue to shout boo, hoping that one day it will be enough to make people flinch.