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Toney and Tonali gambling bans a disgrace – Merson

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Merson scored three times in 21 games for England

Former Arsenal winger Paul Merson says football is “ravaged” with gambling and the bans given to Ivan Toney and Sandro Tonali are a “disgrace”.

Merson says he was a “compulsive gambler” during his playing days and that it is a “hidden addiction” because it is hard for people to spot.

Toney was banned for eight months for 232 breaches of betting rules while Tonali’s 10-month ban ends in August.

“People have no respect for the gambling addiction,” said Merson.

“We’ve seen that with the bans of Sandro Tonali at Newcastle and Ivan Toney at Brentford.

“To give people 10-month bans for an addiction that is ravaging football, with sponsorships all over the shirts… They needed help and I don’t think ‘help’ is giving them 10-month bans.

“We underestimate this addiction. We need to show it some respect and not, ‘oh, show a bit of willpower’. I would say to the people who make these rules up and ban people, ‘next time you get diarrhoea, try and stop that with willpower’.”

Paul Merson holds trophies while at Arsenal
Merson began his career at Arsenal in 1985

Merson had a successful career with Arsenal – winning two league championships, one FA Cup, a League Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup – and played 21 times for England.

The 55-year-old, who has said he has been addicted to gambling his entire adult life, believes it is now much more of an issue in football than alcohol.

“It’s big in football, it’s a hidden addiction because it’s a hard one for managers to get hold of,” he told the Sacked in the Morning podcast.

“It’s easy to hide. If a player comes in who’s been out drinking ’til four o’clock in the morning, you know.

“But if they drop 200 grand at a casino or betting, you never know until it’s too late.

“Talking to Tony [Adams] about Sporting Chance [rehabilitation clinic], it’s gone from 70-30 in terms of drinking over gambling to the other way round – it’s 70% gambling and 30% drinking. That tells you it’s a massive thing.

“With gambling, clubs think, ‘well, it’s not harming them really – it’s not going to affect their game’. But it will affect their game more than drink.

“I used to think I was a bad person who was trying to be a good person but I wasn’t, I was an ill person who needed to get well.”

Paul Merson celebrates scoring for Walsall
Merson celebrates scoring for Walsall

Merson also played for Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Walsall – and it was at the Midlands club that he got his one and only taste of life as a manager.

“From the age of about 28, I’d always wanted to be a football manager. I learned nothing at school. I just loved football,” he added.

“My only regret in football is I failed miserably at Walsall. At the time my addictions were raging with drink and gambling.

“I thought I’d be a really good manager. I really did. I played under some top managers. I always listened and took it in but I just couldn’t do it when it came to me. I just wasn’t good enough.”

Paul Merson shoots against West Germany in a friendly in 1991
Merson shoots against West Germany in a friendly in 1991

Merson’s take on…

Switching from player to manager

It was hard. I was one of the lads. Always having a laugh. To go from that to the manager in a day and make decisions was difficult. I think I am a nice bloke and you need to have an edge about you, be ruthless. That was the reason I found it difficult. I used to ring up people like Alex Ferguson and Mick McCarthy and I remember Mick asking how it was going. I said, ‘I love Saturdays – Monday to Friday not so much but Saturdays I love’. About three months later I dreaded Saturdays, we had no chance and I had to go and tell the lads we could win.

His favourite – and least favourite – managers

George Graham. We wouldn’t have won anything without him. Arsenal were going nowhere until he came along. I’ve played in front of 18,000 at Highbury. Then all of a sudden, bang. Arsene was great, but when he came in, the back four and goalkeeper were sorted when he arrived.

Harry Redknapp. His man management was second to none. I struggled a bit with Colin Lee at Walsall. He was an unbelievable coach, up there with Wenger, Redknapp and [Terry] Venables. But he wasn’t a manager, the man management. He made me train every day and by Saturday I was hopeless. I wouldn’t get in Walsall fans’ top 100 players.

Arsenal’s drinking culture

Perry Groves came in from Colchester United as Cliff Richard and left as Keith Richards. That tells you what it was like. It was mad.

Signing for Middlesbrough

I was chasing the money. Arsene said to me “you’re getting more money than Dennis Bergkamp” – and I was playing in the Championship. Being an addict, a compulsive gambler, I couldn’t turn that money down.

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