Paul Merson
Paul
Merson

Paul Merson was appointed as Walsall's permanent player-manager on May 10th – a month after taking charge on a temporary basis following Colin Lee's surprise dismissal.

The veteran midfielder, who Lee signed on a free transfer in July 2003, had been unable to prevent The Saddlers' relegation to Division Two, despite their 3-2 victory over Rotherham on the final day of the season, but was given the opportunity to continue in his first managerial post as the club looked to make an immediate return to the First Division.

Walsall went down on goal difference after Gillingham managed a goalless draw at Stoke as the team's previous five defeats - three with Merson in charge - proved costly.

However, Walsall owner Jeff Bonser believed relegation would not have been an issue for the Saddlers if the ex-Arsenal, Middlesbrough, Aston Villa and Portsmouth midfielder had been in charge of the club earlier.

"Had the kind of commitment and positive approach, apparent in the past few games been shown throughout the season, relegation would not have been an issue," said Bonser.

"I firmly believe that, as we did four years ago, we can make a really strong bid for promotion next season. I have been very impressed with the way the players have responded to his leadership in recent weeks and that bodes extremely well for the future." Bonser also revealed that a coach would be appointed imminently to assist Merson with training: "Both Paul and myself recognise the need for an experienced coach to work alongside him," continued Bonser. "We will be looking to make an early appointment for this role."

The owner confirmed that Merson would also be leading the push for promotion on, as the experienced playmaker admitted he would not be hanging up his boots just yet: "He has no desire to retire from playing," added Bonser. "As well as being manager, he sees himself making a major contribution as a player next season."

Judging by his character as a player, Merson's move into management may have come as a surprise to many people. Having admitted to gambling, alcohol and drug addictions during his career, the talented Londoner was labelled as something of a 'flawed genius' and was therefore not perhaps an obvious candidate as a future manager.

His career began at Highbury where he signed from apprentice with Arsenal in 1985 as a bright-eyed 17-year-old. Merson spent his finest years at the North London club, making over 300 league appearances for The Gunners and scoring 78 league goals from his position as a creative midfielder, often playing just behind the strikers.

Merson played under George Graham for the vast majority of his 12 years at Highbury, helping the club to win two league titles, the FA Cup, two league cups and the European Cup Winners Cup.

He ended his long stay at the club in July 1997, after just one season under Arsene Wenger, to join Middlesbrough, then managed by Bryan Robson. A brief spell on Teesside ended a year later when Merson made a £6.75million switch to Aston Villa, despite having helped Boro to the First Divison Championship and another FA Cup final, in which they were beaten by Chelsea.

'Merse' enjoyed four years at Villa Park, making over a hundred league appearances and reaching yet another FA Cup final - again losing to Chelsea - before returning to Division One football after a free transfer to Portsmouth.

As he had done at Boro, Merson inspired Pompey to the First Division title but at 35 years of age, he did not feel he could take another season of the rigours of top-flight football and chose to join Walsall, where he was made captain by Colin Lee.

A fantastic start to the season, for both Merson and The Saddlers, soon faded, and as Merson continued to battle against his personal problems off the pitch, the team slid into a relegation battle.

Merson could barely have imagined that he would have been the man charged with steering the club out of trouble, both on and off the pitch, but he was thrust into the hot-seat with four games of the season to go following Lee's departure.

Although Walsall only won one of those games, which was not enough to save them, Merson enjoyed the experience and was delighted to be handed the manager's permanently – alongside his playing role.

With considerable experience of international football, after representing England at Youth, under-21, 'B' and senior levels (winning 19 full caps), 'Merse' certainly has the credentials to command respect from his players, and with a senior coach likely to join his at the Bescot Stadium, his managerial potential could bring another surprise.

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