Defender remembers day Merse tamed Lions

Paul Merson thanks the Millwall fans who appluaded him from the fieldn. Picture: Steve Reid (031028-180)
Paul Merson thanks the Millwall fans who appluaded him from the fieldn. Picture: Steve Reid (031028-180)

It was an afternoon described by Paul Robinson in the Sports Mail as ‘his toughest in football’.

It remains the greatest performance I’ve ever witnessed from a player with the star and crescent on his chest.

The tragedy of it all was barely a Pompey fan witnessed it live.

A spring day in south-east London offered Paul Merson his platform.

And the former England man stepped up with a performance of pure majesty.

The outcome was a 5-0 victory at Millwall, which underlined Pompey were on their way to the Premier League.

Robinson awoke memories of that clash at the start of March in 2003, with his recollection of trying to live with Merse and his rampant team-mates.

And credit has to be given to Pompey fan, Steve Moore, who noted he was a young defender in the Lions side that day.

Moore got in touch via Twitter to suggest asking the man, who has committed himself to Pompey until January, for his recollection of what unravelled.

It was my pleasure to do just that – even if it did bring the 32-year-old out in a cold sweat.

What was striking when chatting with Robinson, was how vivid his recollection of the game was.

Having known some footballers who have consigned scoring hat-tricks a few months earlier to an unvisited recess of their memory, I wasn’t overly hopeful he’d recall too much about a match 11 years earlier.

How wrong was I.

To be fair, Merson’s display won’t be forgotten by any of the 9,697 present that day, either.

A wry grin crossed Robinson’s face at mention of the game.

‘I’ve got a clear memory of it,’ Robinson said.

‘It was a long and tough afternoon!’

‘To share the pitch with Merson and see that level of performance was an honour, really.’

Merson, that day, was the conductor for the Pompey orchestra around him. It was the ultimate display of playmaking. The range of passing from the midfielder was awe-inspring, as was his awareness of space, touch and those team-mates around him.

Yakubu Ayegbeni had not long arrived and bulldozed Robinson ¶ Co from Merson’s supply. Likewise, marauding wing-backs Matt Taylor and Kevin Harper.

All the while it was the former Arsenal man directing operations, like he was sat in the middle of the park with an iPad mapping his team-mates’ runs with touchscreen control.

When a subject is beautiful to watch, so easy on the eye, it becomes art.

That was Paul Merson’s display that day at The Den.

That’s why he was he was given the rarest of gifts when he left the pitch nine minutes from time: A standing ovation from Millwall fans.

This was a matinee performance with a difference, though.

His audience weren’t theatre-goers, and his stage was a home associated with an air of menace.

And no, they didn’t throw roses in his path but Merson, no doubt, would have appreciated their acclaim more.

‘You play to entertain and to be clapped off is something to be proud of,’ the Pompey captain said at the time. ‘They don’t clap too many here, do they?’

What Merson did for the Blues that season was lift their football to an unprecedented level in modern times.

He did so with football from the Gods and, crucially, a presence which raised the games of those around him to new heights. Millwall was the greatest example of that.

A member of Pompey’s current set-up spoke of what a marquee signing of Merson’s ilk would do for the current side. A Merse for League Two, if you like.

All bets would be off in the title race.