Book Review – Hooked: Addiction and the Long Road to Recovery by Paul Merson
In recent years, Paul Merson has stuck his head above the parapet to speak openly, honestly, movingly and at times heartbreakingly about his struggles with addiction, and his latest book, Hooked, delves more deeply into these issues, his troublesome relationship with alcohol, drugs and gambling and his long and continuing road to recovery. For all of the brilliance of the man on the pitch, his greatest contribution may be off it, with a book that helps readers understand the illness that is addiction and hopefully speaks to those who really need it.
Merson’s life has arguably been defined by two things: football and addiction, so it’s no surprise that these two themes are the centrepiece of this book. But in many ways, as in his life itself, football takes a back seat to the narrative of addiction. Indeed, whilst football may have seemed like the crux of Merson’s life, he explains how addiction, in fact, overrode everything. A shy and somewhat anxious young footballer who was thrust into the big leagues as a mere teenager at Arsenal, Merson soon found confidence in alcohol and a release in gambling, but just as his career would take off, so too would his addictions. And what strikes you is whether more could have been done to help a young Merson navigate such a formative stage in his life and his career, to have guided him down a very different path, bringing to mind that opening line in Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ – ‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood’. This was, of course, the 1980s, when drinking culture in particular was synonymous with football, and Arsenal’s infamous Tuesday Club would become the epitome – or nadir – of that culture, and for Merson there was no better – or, rather, no worse – place for him to be. I’d like to think that things have changed and there is a lot more support and guidance now, especially for young footballers coming through as still impressionable adolescents, but sadly this certainly wasn’t the case back then. And whilst it’s heartening to hear Merson speak with such respect for the likes of George Graham and Bryan Robson who did what they could to try to help, the system and the organisation just wasn’t set up then to assist players, leaving them to their own destructive devices.
Merson’s road to recovery has been a long and difficult one and it’s easy to pick up on his insecurities, his vulnerabilities and his weaknesses, but also his determination and his hope, although what is also painfully clear is that addiction is a daily struggle. Indeed, what Merson communicates so effectively, I think, is addiction as a disease. As the American Medical Association defined, it is not a behaviour problem or just the result of making bad choices, but a chronic brain disorder. Once addicts and non-addicts alike begin to accept and understand this a lot more, greater support and empathy should follow, but still addiction seems to be treated as a taboo, and that can’t help anybody. Paul Merson has done a lot in recent times to advance discussions and break down barriers, even when battling against his own addictions, and I think he deserves a lot of respect and credit for fighting for both himself and others, especially when it comes to tackling gambling addiction. His BBC 1 documentary, Football, Gambling and Me, was both an eye-opening and heart-rending look at this lesser-addressed, but arguably more insidious problem, which he explains in this book is the invisible enemy, less obvious and more secretive than the obvious outward displays of alcoholism or drug abuse. It is the addiction that has possibly cost him the most, both materially and financially – he doesn’t skirt around detailing the mammoth sums he lost, not to boast or to brag about the money he was on, but rather to demonstrate just how the disease completely took over – but also socially, having robbed him of brilliant moments in life, with football and family.
What comes across so poignantly in this book is that Merson was just an ordinary boy with an extraordinary talent thrust into a man’s world when still himself just a youth without the mechanisms or support in place to guide him or help him cope and he’s struggled ever since to battle his addictions and find respite and inner peace. It’s great to hear that he’s finally overcoming the disease but it’s also moving to see that every day has its challenges. Football has always been his salvation and I, for one, love him as a pundit and am glad to see him still finding reprieve in the beautiful game. A supremely talented football, Merson’s legacy should comprise all of his heroics on the pitch, but this book and his work to further the discussion around addiction is a symbol of his real heroism. He has proven himself to be a brave, strong and top man, but what is so endearing is that he’s the footballer, the pro, the pundit, that you’d want to sit down with and discuss football, because you know he’d been himself – open, honest, knowledgeable and good fun. Until that day when I get to sit with the man himself, I’ll continue to enjoy his input on TV, with absolute respect for his courage, empathy of his issues and belief in his journey. But if I do ever get to sit down with him, there will be one pressing matter from this book to tackle first – honestly, Paul, not Chelsea? I guess, we’ve all got our flaws.
(Publisher: Headline. September 2021. Hardcover: 304 pages)
Buy the book here: Paul Merson: Hooked