GAMBLING addict Paul Merson grew so anxious after Boris Johnson’s daily Covid updates during lockdown he visited an online bookie – and blew his family’s £160,000 deposit for a new home betting on table tennis.
The ex-Arsenal and England footballer had frittered away £7million on gambling, alcohol and drugs during his long years of addiction, but believed he had finally turned a corner and was in recovery.
Then, in early 2020, the pandemic hit, and by August 27, Sky Sports Soccer Saturday pundit Paul had spent the entire deposit and was feeling suicidal.
He has now revealed he is banned from all betting companies, and believes his third wife Kate will leave him if he relapses again.
Speaking from his rented South West London home, the dad of eight told The Sun on Sunday: “I was on furlough from Sky Sports and at first I enjoyed the lockdown.
“I was in the garden with my youngest kids and the sun was out. But then I started getting addicted to bulletins when Boris Johnson and the bloke with the red tie came out.
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“My anxiety kicked in and I thought, ‘They’re not going to have Soccer Saturday any more’.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m not going to be able to earn anything’. My older kids’ mums have houses and I want to give my younger kids a future.
“Kate and I had £160,000 saved up and I blew it in a few bets. It was all online, but it wasn’t a bookmaker, it was a private bookie.”
‘WAGES GO TO MY WIFE’
The only sports being played at the time were table tennis tournaments and golf.
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Paul, 54, said: “My last bet was eight grand on a table tennis player. I didn’t have a particular knowledge of table tennis but everything was locked down at that point, so there wasn’t much to bet on.
“When I got to that point it was just a total chase-up to try and get my money back, which is a prime example of a compulsive gambler.
“That was my last eight grand but when I’m in the grip of it, I lose all sense of rationale.”
He added: “I remember sitting in my front room and having suicidal thoughts and my kids were playing and I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’ve just done everything in’.
“That was eating me up for a week. At that moment I was just thinking, ‘What’s the point of me being here? What’s the point of me being on this earth? I’m just getting in the way, and I’ve let my kids down for the umpteenth time’.
“I was looking at my children and I hadn’t even told their mum yet that I’d done the money. And when I told her she went ballistic.”
Paul, whose first two marriages crumbled due to his addictions, was terrified he would lose the third. Yet despite her anger, Kate, whose maternal grandfather was also a gambler, forgave Paul, though she immediately took control of the family finances.
Paul, who has 21 England caps, said: “My wages go to my wife and I have pocket money.
“Now I thank God she’s in charge and I’m blocked from all betting companies, so I couldn’t gamble, even if I wanted to.”
Since his relapse Paul has become an ambassador for addiction support app Recoverlution, which offers addicts the comfort of a 24/7 digital community.
He said: “I know my addiction is waiting, and that does scare me. I got involved with this because I know that you can put off going to an Alcoholics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous meeting if it’s raining or you’re tired.
“With Recoverlution there’s no excuse, you’ve got your laptop or your iPhone or whatever. And it’s there 24/7 and connects to all around the world.I think that’s an important thing — you can get help in the middle of the night.”
Paul joined Arsenal in 1985 and won two Football League Championships, an FA Cup, the Football League Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup with them.
Yet within years his addictions took control. He said: “I was playing for England and sitting in crack dens with a massive rock of coke.
“People would come in to score, then do a double take and think, ‘No, it can’t be Paul Merson, can it?’
“I’d be drinking at 5am after the nightclubs shut and snorting cocaine in the taxi on the way to Arsenal training. I tried to kill myself three times. Someone has looked out for me. I don’t go to church but I do believe in God.”
A spell in rehab conquered Paul’s cocaine addiction but his gambling problem was still rampant by the time he joined Aston Villa in 1998.
He said: “I once lost a top-of-the-range Rolex to a friend in a game of heads and tails when we were drunk in Spain. He took the watch and then got robbed. But you can’t have a bet and moan if you lose.
“At Villa, me and David James went to the car show at the Birmingham NEC and I bought a Ferrari for £105,000.
“I said to the guy, ‘I’ll give you cash on Tuesday’. But on the Monday I went to the bookies.
“On Tuesday the Ferrari geezer got to the training ground and I just said, ‘I lost it. I ain’t got the money’.
“Then I said, ‘Do us a favour, can I just have a little drive?’ and I went up the road and back. I actually didn’t like it because it had those Tiptronic (semi-automatic) gears. I dodged a bullet with that one.”
Now Paul attends Gamblers Anonymous sessions, talks to an expert, uses the app — and has chocolate for comfort instead of drink.
He said: “I’m a chocoholic. Or a pudding-aholic. I eat puddings, which I’ve never been interested in. That took up too much room for the drink, so it’s swings and roundabouts.
“But my wife would rather me eat a bar of Dairy Milk in two seconds flat than not know when I’ll be home.”
And Paul is determined not to relapse again. He said: “Kate would leave me, and I wouldn’t blame her.
“I don’t think I’ve got another recovery in me. I’ve done it too many times.”
EASY TO LOSE £300K IN A DAY
PAUL worries about young footballers playing at the top level and betting.
He said: “Among professional sportspeople it is an increasing problem. In Tony Adams’s treatment centre it used to be 70 per cent alcoholics and 30 per cent gamblers and now it’s the other way round. That shows you.
“Gambling affected my game more than the drinking. With drinking, people can see you.
“These players on 100 grand a week, someone could drop 300 grand in a day and come into training. No one knows.
“It’s very easy for a player to sit indoors and lose money. I’m talking about one or two per cent.”
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