Paul Merson's season at Walsall, which was widely expected to be his last, didn't quite go to plan as he finished the season as player-manager, watching his side plummet into Division Two. Paul Giess looks at the task facing the league's most unlikely manager
After several half-hearted attempts to consolidate in Division One, there was a feeling that Walsall had finally got it right last July when Paul Merson signed up. Sky turned up to cover his arrival – suddenly the Saddlers had a big name on their books for the first time. His plan was to play through a two-year contract while working towards coaching qualifications. The thought of a man who struggled to manage his own daily routine taking charge of someone’s club seemed absurd at that time.
It is not too harsh to say that Merson contributed just two really outstanding performances to Walsall’s season – the first and last games. On the opening day of the season he scored two of the four exceptional goals that destroyed West Brom. Interviewed afterwards he claimed the football Walsall played had been even better than that of Portsmouth’s title winners from the previous season. At the end of Merson’s next great performance – a frantic but futile display of perpetual motion against Rotherham – we were relegated.
This spectacular fall from grace may well haunt the club for years to come. By the turn of the year we were four points off the play-offs with a run of winnable games to come. Teams will get injuries and suspensions, but Walsall suddenly got all of theirs in one go. Vinny Samways, who had commuted from the Costa del Sol since August, suddenly lost enthusiasm. He effectively went on strike and finally his contract was suspended. The team lost every game in January and turned victories into draws in February; suddenly we were closer to the bottom than the top. Then came a fateful home game with Crewe, for which an “unwell” Merson did not make the squad. Soon it was announced he had flown to a clinic in Arizona to receive treatment for a gambling addiction.
In the absence of key men Merson and Samways, Colin Lee resorted to a cautious game plan. At times it seemed we had lost the will to attack and were simply waiting to get beaten. It took Plymouth’s intervention to change things. They decided to appoint the successor to Paul Sturrock in the final few weeks of the season and, for some reason, Lee was in the frame. Walsall’s owner Jeff Bonser sensed a way out and gave Lee permission to talk to Plymouth as a test of his commitment. When he met with them, Lee was deemed to have failed and was dismissed. The trouble was that Paul Bracewell, his number two, left with him. Youth coach Mick Halsall did not want to move up so Bonser had to turn to the senior players. Step forward Paul Merson.
Four games to go and most likely two wins required to stay up. A day after being made manager Merson took the side to table-topping Norwich. He approached the game like a child loose in the sweet shop, picking three centre-forwards against the free-scoring title-chasers. A predictable 5-0 drubbing was followed by two more defeats before the final-day heroics, which were not enough to stave off relegation. On paper it looks bad, but it was no surprise when Merson was made full-time player-manager just two days later. The positive football he had introduced and the players’ obvious respect and willingness to play for him were a joy to watch – Merson had got everyone pulling in the same direction.
Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess. Four games of “win or bust” football is very different from a full campaign with player indiscipline, injuries and loss of form, with the pressure of a support expecting promotion. At a club with notoriously tight purse strings it has been inspirational coaching of mediocre players that has brought about the recent success. Merson will have to do the same. Some have mocked the appointment and some here in Walsall are watching nervously for it to all fall apart again, but most of us are fully behind the League’s most unlikely manager. He will never have been as busy in his football career as he is about to become.
From WSC 209 July 2004. What was happening this month