Welcome to the first in a new series of player profiles which focuses on some of the flair players that have pulled on an Aston Villa shirt over the years. Some have fared better than others; in fact, some have soared whilst some have flopped. But they all had the same thing in common; they had the ability to change a game in an instant through their skill. This is the Maverick Series.
It is the year 2000, and a dark and dreary November afternoon at Goodison Park is thankfully coming to a close for Aston Villa supporters housed away in the Bullens Road stand. It is the 90th minute and Everton have absolutely battered Villa for the entire match but somehow the score remains 0-0. Villa haven’t even had a shot on target for the entire match. There is anxiety amongst Villa fans desperately hoping to see out the final moments to secure an unlikely and undeserved point.
The ball is bobbling around midway in Everton’s half and breaks to Paul Merson. Without warning, Merse, fully 35 yards out, deftly swipes the ball high and aloft towards the Everton goal. Toffee’s keeper Paul Gerrard is off his line and scrambling backwards. The ball continues to sail goalwards and impeccably dips under the bar and into the net, out of the reach of the flailing Gerrard. The game finishes 1-0. Villa fans have just witnessed yet another moment of magic from Merson. As John Gregory summed up succinctly afterwards, ‘One shot, one goal. That was worth waiting for.’
Probably the best
I’m going to jump right in at the deep end here and say that Paul Merson is probably the very best player I have ever seen in an Aston Villa shirt. And such is the regard that Merson is held in by Villans still, there is a good chance you’re agreeing with me right now.
That moment at Goodison Park was just one of many examples of the genius and guile that Merson displayed during a glorious four-year spell at Villa Park. The magic man himself would play that particular moment down by saying ‘I couldn’t run anymore, it was the 90th minute. So I just smacked it’. But it was far from a fluke. Knackered as he may well have been, there was still the presence of mind to see Gerrard off his line. Whilst he may well have just been ‘smacking’ the ball, the execution of technique and pinpoint accuracy of the shot was majestic.
Having been an integral part of several different Arsenal sides during his 12 years with the club which tasted various domestic and European successes, Merson’s career took an unexpected turn when he joined newly relegated Middlesbrough in 1997. At the age of 29 years old, dropping down to what was then the First Division seemed odd. The contract on offer was too good to turn down, however. Arsene Wenger would note that Boro were paying Merson more than the Gunners were paying Dennis Bergkamp.
Unsurprisingly, Merson was head and shoulders above in the league and performed to such a standard that he won a place in Glenn Hoddle’s England squad for the 1998 World Cup held in France. Despite winning promotion with Boro, Merson never settled living so far north. Villa swooped in with a £6.75 million offer which was accepted.
Merson joins Villa
The fee was sizeable for a 30-year-old at the time and Merson initially clashed with Gregory over commuting issues. His performances were unspectacular, to say the least, and it seemed that Villa had landed themselves an expensive flop for the first few months.
Merson eventually relocated to the Midlands, however, and the quality soon began to ooze. Despite his advancing years, undoubtedly played some of the best football of his career over the next four years.
Merson’s game was all about touch, control and deftness. He was an incredibly tidy player always looking to create. I used to love it when he would ping a pass using the outside of his right foot, the technique was phenomenal.
Of course, Merson’s lob against Everton wasn’t the only spectacular goal he scored whilst at Villa. There was a magnificent effort against Watford at Villa Park where he picked up the ball just inside the opposition half and ran diagonally across the pitch before chipping in a shot from 20 yards which sailed into the top corner. There was also an important goal to draw Villa level with Sheffield Wednesday (which we’d then go onto win 2-1), which Merson is convinced saved Gregory from the sack during a poor run of form. And of course, there is that famous game against Coventry which saw Villa trailing 2-0 at half time. With the Sky Blues needing to win to avoid relegation, a Merson inspired second half played out in glorious sunshine saw us roar back from the dead with the Magic Man himself rattling in a curling effort from 20 yards to seal a 3-2 victory and confirm the relegation of our near neighbours.
The departure of Gregory as manager in 2002 signalled the beginning of the end for Merson’s Villa career. Graham Taylor was brought back for a second spell in charge and, now at 34 years of age, unceremoniously deemed him surplus to requirements.
Division One’s (again, now the Championship) Portsmouth would snap up Merson on a free and there was little surprise to see him orchestrate Pompey’s promotion to the Premier League with some sublime performances which earned him a place in the PFA Team of the Year. Feeling the effects of his soon to be 36-year-old body, and wanting to return to the Midlands, Merson gave up the chance at one last crack at Premier League football and would instead join up with Walsall where he’d embark on a rollercoaster three years. It saw him battle his personal demons once again, all in the midst of ending up in the rarely-now-seen role of player-manager of the club.
There is little doubt Merson loved playing for the Villa, which is a big part of why supporters still hold him in such high regards. ‘It was the only time I ever cried when I left a football club’. He’s often vocal still on Villa matters offering his opinion and whilst some of his views might be off the mark (he was adamant that sacking Steve Bruce was the wrong decision!) it’s always good to have a voice in the mainstream pushing home the fact just how big a club Villa is.
Like many of our big-name signings over the years who always seem to arrive in the later years of their career, there is a keen sense of wishing Merson had joined the club several years beforehand. However, unlike others such as Robert Pires and David Ginola, we were lucky enough to still get to witness the very best that Merson had to offer.