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Full disclosure: I’m not into football – but I accept that ‘the beautiful game’ is a burning passion for many of my friends.

It’s clear to me, apart from the sheer entertainment value, allegiance to a team gives them a sense of belonging, an outlet for emotions, and an exciting highlight. I am, however, into walking. So it was with great interest that I settled in front of the telly the other evening to watch A walk through my life with ex-England and Arsenal footballer, Paul Merson.

Merson enjoyed an illustrious football career, and now finds himself a resident pundit on Sky Sport’s popular Saturday afternoon show. Capped 21 times by his country – and a member of the squad that contested the 1992 UEFA European Championship and 1998 FIFA World Cup – he has openly and honestly talked about his mental health struggles and addiction issues.

PARTY ANIMALS: As players, Merson (left) and Paul Gascoigne lived life to the full.

The programme (which can be viewed by clicking here) is an extended version of the original BBC Four series Winter Walks where a well-known personality meanders for five or six miles through beautiful landscape alone while carrying a 360° camera on a selfie-stick.

Unscripted dialogue, straight to the camera, gives a surprising sense of closeness as if you are walking alongside the narrator. The simplicity of the format is pure genius. Close-up scenes are punctuated by stunning drone footage. Production values are off the chart. It’s worth watching on the biggest telly you can find!

Merson, a Londoner who still lives in the capital, says he has never walked alone through the open countryside before. This appears to be his first real encounter with nature on a grand scale. Perhaps that’s why, as a grown man of 54, he experiences it with the intense awe and wonder of a child. He becomes freshly awake and aware. The silence, the solitude, and the sense of space seem to wash over him like a refreshing balm. As he walks alone, and “sits with his feelings” away from the “hustle and bustle”, revelations about his life unexpectedly bubble to the surface and spill out.

UNFULFILLED POTENTIAL: Merson and England didn’t quite live up to expectations at the World Cup.

Deeper thinking generates surprising new thoughts about his family relationships, his career as a footballer, and his 30-year battle with addictions.

Alone in “the middle of nowhere” he pauses to process some of these, often harrowing, realisations. There are touching moments of deep gratitude, alongside crushing regrets at having not expressed this adequately to the people he loves most in all the world. His narration is raw, succinct and bold. He pauses to pray for a few moments in a church. It is a heartfelt cry directed toward God.

The day’s walk ends with long views over Yorkshire God’s own country – as it’s known to those who come from the White Rose county.

ADDICTION AFFLICTION: Merson has revealed he was an alcoholic while playing for Arsenal.

From a well-placed bench, Merson enjoys a well-earned rest. There have been both physical and emotional efforts throughout his journey. He reflects on the experience with astonishing openness. I’m no theologian, but to me, the whole of Merson’s informal narration has a richly honest prayer-like quality. He’s speaking his own personal truths out loud, bringing them into the light as it were. In so doing, he begins accepting how things have been, how things currently are, then declaring and avowing his clear intentions to be a better man. That old-fashioned churchy-word ‘confession’ gets a bad press but this troubled soul found peace through the simple act of prayer and pacing ancient pathways.

Val Fraser is a Sorted columnist and a freelance journalist based in northwest England

Val Fraser

Val Fraser is a trained journalist with over 12 years’ experience working on staff in various demanding media environments. She has authored/edited thousands of articles including news, travel and features. Val has authored/contributed to nine non-fiction books. A regular columnist, she stepped up to the role of Digital Editor in September 2022 and is responsible for the Sorted Magazine website.
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