Paul Merson: I was too soft as Walsall boss
Paul Merson says his disappointing spell in charge of the Walsall is the biggest regret of his football career.
The 49-year-old, who is now a pundit with Sky Sports, initially joined the Saddlers as a player in 2003 before going to replace the sacked Colin Lee as boss.
With the club struggling near the foot of the Championship, Merson almost pulled off a great escape to keep Walsall in the division.
But a harsh penalty at Crystal Palace eventually helped conspire to take them down on the final day.
Despite dropping down a division, the Saddlers struggled the following year with the arrivals of Julian Joachim, Andy Oakes, Anthony Gerrard, Craig Pead and David Perpetuini just about preventing back-to-back relegations.
And with the team again struggling in the 2005/2006 campaign, Merson was relieved of his duties following a 5-0 loss at Brentford.
“My biggest regret in football was my managerial career at Walsall if I’m being honest,” the former Arsenal, Villa and England midfielder said.
“When I first joined the club as a player, my debut couldn’t have gone any better.
“I netted two goals in a 4-1 win over Albion. But as a manager I should have done a lot better.
“In hindsight I should have gone into a club where nobody knew me.
“I was friends with a lot of the lads from the year before and I wasn’t a great trainer. I didn’t set the right example if I’m being honest.
“I was coming towards the end of my career and I had played a lot of football matches. I could have done better and I should have done better.”
Merson admits, looking back, there are now a lot of things he would have done differently.
“There are so many things I would now do differently,” he continued.
“I would be a lot harder. I was too soft and I was too nice.
“But that is because they were my mates. It’s a really hard thing to do to cross that line. I believe if I had gone somewhere they didn’t know me, I would have stood a better chance.
“I also gave a lot of youngsters a chance. But in that league, you can’t play too many. That was a mistake as well.”
Despite being on the end of a lot of stick in his final few months at the club, Merson said he will always respect Walsall’s fans.
“Walsall have got a solid 4,000 to 5,000 fans,” he added.
“And they can be as bad as ever but it doesn’t matter – they’ll still turn up.
“I haven’t seen anything like that at any other club. Those fans are as solid as you like. You could lose 10 on the trot and they’ll still turn up.
“The attendance at Bescot will never dip to 2,000 or 3,000. It will always stay around that level.
“And while they gave me the worst stick of my career on that day at Brentford, it’s their club and I could understand it.”