‘I’d never played in front of anything like it - we’d take some beating now’: Arsenal, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Portsmouth great on best year of his career

Paul Merson believes Pompey’s heroes of 2003 would stand toe-to-toe with any Championship team since.
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And the captain of Harry Redknapp’s side has rated his season at Fratton Park as the best of his decorated career in the game.

Merson has told of the moment he realised he could be in for a special campaign, as he made his Blues debut in the 2002-03 opening-day win over Nottingham Forest.

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And so it proved, as the former England captain went on lift the Division One title in a never-to-be-forgotten campaign.

Merson told The Harry Redknapp Show: ‘I remember playing Forest in the first game and there was 19,000 there.

‘I played well in that game, but didn’t score. I played well and I thought: “I’ve never played in front of anything like this before”. You would’ve thought there was 100,000 there. I thought “cor, we’ve got a chance here”.

‘That was a good team.

‘We had Tim Sherwood who’d won the Premier League.

Paul Merson. Picture: Steve ReidPaul Merson. Picture: Steve Reid
Paul Merson. Picture: Steve Reid

‘Arjan De Zeeuw and Linvoy (Primus) who wasn’t even going to play and ended up being the best player.

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Matty Taylor, Gary O’Neil and (Svetoslav) Todorov - what a player.

‘Yakubu, when he came, oh my god - how did we get him?

‘We’d play eight v eight and he’d score 25 goals in training.

Paul Merson.  Picture: Steve ReidPaul Merson.  Picture: Steve Reid
Paul Merson. Picture: Steve Reid

‘I loved it there that year.

‘I see these Championship teams now and they say they’re the best team to come out of it.

‘I think we’d have taken some beating, we’d have taken some beating.

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‘Some of the experienced players and younger players we had.

‘We were beating teams like Derby by about seven, we were smashing all of them.

‘It was the best year I ever had in football.’

Merson pinpointed Pompey’s third game of the season, as they came back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 at Crystal Palace as a key moment in the season.

Redknapp switched to the wing-back system which proved so crucial to success at Selhurst Park – and his team never looked back.

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Merson added: ‘We went to Palace and Dougie Freedman ripped us to shreds.

‘We were 2-0 down it could’ve been 100-0. We had this gold kit on and looked the part before the game, but I’m walking in at half-time thinking “what the **** have I done here?”.

‘I’ve come here and we’re going to win the odd game at home and getting slaughtered every time we go away.

‘Harry came in and went “off, off, off and on, on, on - three at the back, you in the hole Merse and wing-backs get forward”. We won the game 3-2.

‘I thought “my god, how did you see that?”.

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‘Tactically he was unbelievable. He turned the game on its head.

‘I hear people say: “Harry Redknapp wheeler-dealer”. It gets on my nerves, I hate that.

‘Harry is as tactically as good as anyone I worked with and knew a player.

‘I trained twice a week and missed one game all season. That shows how good he was.’