Arsenal title winners Paul Merson, Perry Groves and David Seaman talk mental health
As part of the Heads Up campaign, Sky Sports speaks to three of Arsenal's 1991 title-winning side
Last Updated: 16/02/20 2:59pm
"Nobody talked about feelings, ever," says Paul Merson.
That's the way it was in the early 90s, when Merson, Perry Groves and David Seaman were playing for England's best team. Merson and Groves, still best friends, were title winners with Arsenal in 1989, with Seaman joining a year later as the trio won the First Division under George Graham again in 1991. Arsenal won a lot, and celebrated a lot.
Merson's battles with alcohol, gambling and drugs have been well-documented since, and here, in a special feature for the Heads Up campaign, the Magic Man goes into depth about the complexities of his mental health issues and its origin, with the help of two of his closest friends.
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Do footballers put on a mask?
Merson: "Of course. I loved it, I sit here now and my life is completely different, but when I was in my young-20s, it was brilliant. I loved it. It was the dream. Going out, you look like Brad Pitt because you're playing for the best team in the country. But of course it was all masked. You have to put a smile on your face.
"Behind the scenes, you've just lost all of your money, and there's going to be a big story breaking in the paper next week about you with a girl you were with three weeks before who sold their story. All of that stuff is on you, and you have nobody to talk to. Not a soul. Nobody in the world. All you can do is push it down and down you."
Groves: "You wanted to be accepted as a person, and as a footballer. When you go into a football club, every player is looking at you. There's acceptance on the playing side, and then an acceptance into the group socially. You go all bubbly because you don't want to start showing a weakness. Why? Because you'd get ripped, and you wouldn't get any sympathy.
Merson: "I used to see a psychiatrist, lie on the couch and say: 'Why can't I be like Alan Smith? Why can't I be normal?' He lived his life like I wanted to, but I couldn't. He'd finish training, happily married and always seemed content, no turmoil. I was never content. He didn't have to wake up Sunday morning, look through the paper frantically and think: 'Thank God, nothing in there'."
Groves: "I can't show my manager that I've got something affecting me psychologically because that might make him not play me. You've got to give this aura that you're strong mentally. It's not real."
Merse: "Nobody talked about feelings, ever."
Why are divorce rates so high?
Merson: "You can go through our whole team. Alan Smith and Nigel Winterburn are the only two who are still married. The rest are all divorced. Every player."
Groves: "Why is the divorce rate high? Selfishness, in your own bubble. If you're playing well for a big club like Arsenal, you become a bit better looking, you get more interest, you think the world is your oyster. I was married at the weekends, and then Monday if you'd won you were going in buzzing, you knew you were all going out on the Tuesday. Then you were off Wednesday and back in Thursday. I had two lives. Married when it suited me. Single when it suited me. It's pure selfishness."
'We didn't know he was addicted'
Seaman: "I remember at Highbury sometimes Merse would sprint off at half-time just to get to the TV. I remember thinking: 'What is he doing, why is he not thinking about the game?'"
Merson: "It would be to catch the 3.45 race. I'd run up the tunnel, I'd catch the race before we could get in to do the team talk."
Seaman: "I never thought about his problems, just about why he wasn't focused on the team and game."
Groves: "The way the culture was, all that would matter is whether you could play and were fit for Saturday. We didn't think you had a gambling addiction, we just thought you liked to bet but were rubbish at it! I remember Gary Lewin put us out on the mountain bikes when we were injured one day at London Colney. You had about 45 minutes to an hour to get round. You're meant to turn left to do the loop, but Merse wanted to go straight on with me. He was going straight to the betting shop. We had £20 each, sat in the bookies gambling. We biked back, went to a puddle and put mud all over ourselves so it looked like we'd been biking around. I just thought it was funny, I didn't think he had a problem, it was something to tell the lads."
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'Addiction wants you to be alone'
Merson: "I couldn't cope with life. I was a council lad who came from a council estate, playing at a big club with big headlines, and I couldn't handle it. So I drank and drank, and that led to drugs. Once that happened, I withdrew from the lads at Arsenal. That's what addiction does, it wants you on your own, away from people. It doesn't want you with your best mate asking you: 'What are you doing with your life?' I was drinking, gambling and taking drugs indoors. I'd get back from training at 1pm, I'd pull the curtains and my head would be gone. I'd wait until the next day and do it again.
"I was very shy, very insecure, but with booze I'd become a completely different person. I wouldn't say boo to a goose, but a drink would completely change me. When you're in the betting shop, you're gambling, you're one of the lads, I felt like someone. I was so shy. I went out with a girl when I was 14 for a month, I never kissed her once! I was that shy. I used to get home every night, lay in bed and think: 'What's wrong with me, why can't I do that? Why can't I kiss somebody?' Then I have a drink and I'm Brad Pitt, having a laugh and I'm funny.
"Then I'm losing money, then I'm drinking more, then the drink isn't helping me so much because I've lost all my money, then I find the drugs. The drugs pick you up and then chuck you back down to your knees as quick as anything."
'I thought I'd be treated like Beckham'
Seaman: "I'm OK. I've been divorced twice, but I was ready for retirement, and was ready to get back to being normal. I was brought up without money, and then all of a sudden you get a lot of money. But for me, luckily, I handled it.
"When I was going through my divorces, I found that having a drink made me feel better. But then I learned that I was doing it a bit too often, and for some reason I knew not to do it. That's part of the reason I did stop, and I learned from Paul and Tony, that if I did carry on doing it, I'd be in trouble.
"The divorces affected me a lot, because you feel like you've let everybody down. But being a goalkeeper helps you in life, because you make these mistakes and recover, because you have to recover, If you make that mistake in the first five minutes and you're a wreck for the rest of the game, it could really be bad for the rest of the team."
Merse: "Did that help you in your divorces? To move on?"
Seaman: "That's what I did, I moved on after my divorces, I knew that it wasn't right where I was, and I knew that affected a lot of people, but I had to be selfish.
"I remember at the 2002 World Cup when Ronaldinho scored, I was looking at the clock with 30 minutes left and thinking: 'Come on, please lads, get me out of this…' and then about 10 minutes later I'm thinking: 'Nothing is happening here…'
"I thought: 'What am I going to do if I get treated like Beckham was treated in 1998?' I was thinking this on the pitch. I'm not 100 per cent there, because I'm thinking about the consequence. They entered my head. We got beat 2-1, and at the end of the game I just broke down, because I felt I'd let everyone down. It wasn't until we got back to Heathrow, still thinking: 'What am I going to get treated like?' Luckily, at Heathrow, there were a load of fans there, they started singing my name, and it was almost like a relief."
'Players have big personalities... we don't see them'
Merson: "I do feel for modern players now. We were in a bubble then, when it was nothing compared to what it is now. Players out there have some massive personalities and they're not allowed to show them. I think that's really worrying, not being able to show who they really are. They have to be suppressed and can't enjoy himself."
Groves: "Football is now like the Truman Show. Now, they're like pop stars or film stars."
Merson: "The main thing is getting people to talk. This is not mental health week. This is not mental health day. This is mental health life. It should become as normal in 10 years' time to talk to someone as it is to get up in the morning and clean your teeth."
The Heads Up Weekend, taking place on February 15/16, will see every football team from across the Premier League, English Football League, The National League, The Barclays Women's Super League, The FA Women's Championship and The FA Women's National League dedicate their matches to Heads Up.