Paul Merson on gambling addiction: 'I wouldn't wish this on anybody'

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Merson discusses addiction to gambling in a BBC One film

You can watch 'Paul Merson - Football, Gambling, and Me' on BBC One or BBC iPlayer Monday, 11 Oct at 21:00 BST

Paul Merson was awarded the FA Cup, League Cup, and European Cup Winners Cup with Arsenal. He represented England at the European Championship and World Cup.

In a life of addiction, he has also lost over 7 million to gambling.

Paul Merson: Football, Gambling & Me is a new documentary that will air on BBC One Monday, 11 Oct at 21:00 BST. The 53-year old sets out to discover the source of his compulsion, examines why some footballers are more prone than others, and explores what companies and the government can do to help.

BBC Sport held a candid conversation with Merson before the film was released.

"I have been addicted to cocaine and alcohol, but gambling is the most harmful and difficult addiction I have."

Merson was a professional football player for 21 years. He received transfer fees in excess of 12m. He earned around 20,000 per week when he played for Middlesbrough during the late 1990s.

With his third wife Kate, he now lives in a rented apartment with their three young children. Merson explains that he has given control of his finances over to Kate.

He shared his regrets with us.

He says, "Looking back now it's the money not that you regret." "I was a millionaire and wanted suicide.

It's the time that you've lost. Eight of my children are people I love dearly.

Merson describes in the film his addiction to heroin.

He says, "I have been addicted to cocaine and alcohol. But gambling is the most damaging and I am still struggling with it today."

"If I want drunken or high, I must put something up or down my nose." Gambling is already in you. You just have to wait and talk to yourself.

Merson fell into a coma during lockdown and lost the deposit on the house he and Kate had hoped to move into with their children.

He says, "I would be sitting on the couch and I'd glance over at the children." "The hatred I felt for myself, thinking about how they'd be let down.

"The frightening thing about this is that you know the only outcome but can't stop."

Merson was 12 years old when he joined Arsenal, but he also played for Middlesbrough and Aston Villa.

"I've never had that off-switch"

Merson meets up with Wes Reid during the film. Reid was his Arsenal friend in his early days.

Reid shows Reid images of young men gambling in club accommodation. He recalls that Merson wouldn't be able stop betting once he started.

Merson is able to see through his tears how long he has been trapped in addiction.

He says, "All my life, that switch has never been on."

"A goal is the best way to get a buzz in the world. However, I knew that I needed to keep the buzz going after I left the pitch.

Are footballers more at-risk?

WARNING: This article contains some offensive language. Scott Davies, John Hartson, and Keith Gillespie talk about their struggles with gambling

In 2014, 6.1% of professional players were classified as problem gamblers. This compares to 1.9% for the general population.

The film examines why footballers are more at risk than others.

Merson believes that a person's gambling problem is more likely to be a result of their football lifestyle.

He says, "I believe you have bundles of money as well as bundles of time."

Merson is seen playing golf with three former footballers who are recovering from gambling addiction: Keith Gillespie (Newcastle & Northern Ireland), John Hartson(Arsenal & Wales) and Scott Davies (“Reading”).

The men have combined lost over 15 million to gambling.

Gillespie states: "In my first six month at Newcastle, I lived alone at 19 years old.

"You end training each day at 12:12. All the other players have families to return to. I was simply returning to my hotel room. It was just the bookies that I saw every day.

Merson claims that he used to hate evening matches because he knew he'd spend all day gambling in his hotel.

He says, "By the 7:45 kickoff, I'd have been half asleep."

"Gambling has literally rewired me brain"

Merson claims that he has had difficulty finding pleasure in other activities.

Merson visits various doctors during the film to try and understand why his brain functions as it does.

Dr David Erritzoe is a consultant psychiatrist at Imperial College London. He works with a research group to map the brain, and determine the neurobiological basis for gambling addiction.

An experiment was conducted that showed Merson's brain reacts more to images of gambling than images of nature, food, and family.

Merson said that he found the results "scary".

He says in the film: "This disease literally rewired me brain."

"Betting companies prey on sick people"

Merson explained to us that Dr Erritzoe's experiment made him think about his brain's response to gambling ads.

He says that he believes the ads are triggers. "Now that I understand more about how it can affect my life, I now turn off the ads when they come on."

The 2005 Gambling Act was relaxed by the government, and is being reviewed by the government.

The Betting and Gaming Council (BGC), in response to the film, stated: "Since being established as the standards body representing regulated industry less than two years ago the BGC introduced a variety of measures aimed towards promoting safer gambling.

These include a 70% reduction in VIP schemes, a ban on TV betting commercials during live sports, and our members now ensure at least 20% of their radio and TV ads are safer gambling messages."

William Hill responded with the following: "We take safety of our customers very seriously. All of our ads feature safer gambling messaging, and instructions. Over 20% of our radio and TV advertising has been dedicated to promoting safer gambling initiatives such as deposit limits and timeouts.

Merson warns that safer gambling messages don't always work, and that it is up to the companies to establish limits.

The BGC responded by stating that the government has a 0.5% problem gambling rate, while recent surveys by the Gambling Commission show that problem gambling rates have been decreasing.

Research shows that problem gamblers are at greater risk than the relatively small number. The House of Lords discovered that 60% of the gambling companies' profits were derived from the 5% of their users who are either already problem gamblers or at risk of becoming one.

Merson is shown meeting Matt Zarb-Cousin during the film. He is a recovering gambling addict who created Clean Up Gambling. This organization lobbying for changes to gambling laws.

Merson is shown evidence by Merson of how a casino company collects data after users sign up.

Merson believes that gambling companies have the tools necessary to identify problem gamblers and should use these responsibly.

He says, "The companies know which problem gamblers they are." That's what gets my head in the most. I can show you accounts in which I placed 90 bets per day. I don't believe that's a trigger.

Merson states in the film that he doesn't advocate a ban on gambling, but he believes "betting companies prey on sick people".

According to the Gambling Commission, "All gambling products must have a socially responsible marketing approach and no free bets should ever be given to anyone showing signs or danger."

"Failing to market gambling responsibly could lead to harsh action from us."

"One person could see this movie and then have a better life."

Merson says that the process of making this film was very helpful.

He says, "It was important for me that I could see myself as a sick individual trying to get better, rather than as a horrible person trying to get better."

He doesn't expect universal sympathy.

"Officially, there will be some who watch the show and think, "Forget him, 7m he lost, good job."

"If someone watches it and tells me that they need help, then that would be a huge success story for my company. This is something I would not wish on anyone."