Former footballer and reformed addict Paul Merson believes the sport should do more to stop players falling prey to gambling problems.
Merson also battled alcohol and drugs during a career that nevertheless gleaned league titles, European trophies and playing at World Cups for England.
The ex-Arsenal forward, 54, was driven to the brink of suicide by his addictions and is now determined to help others avoid the same pitfalls.
He examines his off-field issues in a new one-off TV show, Paul Merson: A Walk Through My Life, which follows his documentary exploring gambling addiction last year.
“After the programme that I did on gambling I never had one phone call from a football club,” he told City A.M.
“Not one club asked me to come in and have a talk with their younger kids or players. I find that mind blowing. It doesn’t bother me; I’m just thinking of the kids and the players.”
Merson insists an addiction to gambling significantly dents players’ performance despite it not having the same physical effects as other vices.
“The way people look at it is that it won’t affect their game like drinking or taking drugs. That’s wrong,” he added.
“What the gambling does to your mind is so draining. Footballers who gamble, you could put another 15 to 20 per cent on their game, I would say. That’s what people don’t realise.
“The only thing is that it’s a hidden addiction. If a player has been out all night the manager is going to know. If he’s lost £300,000 they might not know.”
Merson says he “would never say ‘ban gambling’” and disagrees more strongly with the way betting advertising has become harder to avoid outside of sport than with it appearing during half-time of live matches.
“That’s not a problem for me,” he adds. “I know the advert is coming on. I have a choice. I go out of the room or turn the telly over. But when it’s thrown in your face every two minutes then I think we have a problem.”
Merson is scathing about plans to prevent sporting celebrities from advertising betting companies, which he says is way down the list of priorities for tackling problem gambling.
“For me that’s a cheap shot,” he said. “I didn’t gamble all my money away because I was watching an ex-footballer doing adverts.”
Instead, Merson believes it should be much harder for punters with a problem to lose thousands.
He believes bookmakers should have much lower caps on losses and should be required to check clients’ bank accounts to test whether they can afford the sums being waged.
Merson is a familiar face on Sky Sports’ football coverage but his latest TV outing is a departure from the matey badinage of Soccer Saturday.
In A Walk Through My Life, which airs on BBC Two on Thursday, he cuts a more reflective and vulnerable figure, addressing topics such as his childhood anxiety, faith and mortality on a solo walk through picturesque West Yorkshire.
The likeable Merson still provides laughs, whether falling into a puddle or marvelling at a roadside honesty box of locally produced eggs, but is also moved to tears when talking about his struggles and at one stage even recites a poem on a windswept hilltop.
Mostly, the man who has now not drunk alcohol for three years or gambled for 13 months marvels at his new-found gift of enjoying the everyday.
“The thing now I really search for is being in the moment,” he said. “I like my life today. It’s good. I enjoy it. I didn’t for years and years.”
Merson doesn’t count his gambling losses in pounds but minutes. “I lost time. The money is irrelevant. The richest person in the world is the person who lives in the moment.
“I do these things to help someone. It’s not changing my life. It’s to help someone else, someone who’s watching the show and thinks ‘I’m like that’.
“I don’t want someone to live my life that I lived away from football. I want people to know there is help out there.”
Paul Merson – A Walk Through My Life is a co-commission by BBC Two and BBC England and airs on Thursday 5 May at 8pm.