The Ballad of Paul Vaessen: Remembering the Hero of Turin
Paul Vaessen’s life was, to use a footballing cliché, one of two halves. The first, a magnificent rise through the Arsenal academy to the first team squad, culminating in the famous goal for which he is remembered. The second, the devastation of a career cut terribly short by injury, a descent into addiction and petty crime and eventually, his tragic death. To quote directly from Stewart Taylor’s biography of Paul Vaessen: ‘Paul wasn’t one of the greatest footballers in the world[…]but his tale is more than worthy of telling. In fact it’s one of the most important you’ll ever read.’
Friday the 8th of August 2014 marked 13 years since Paul’s passing and this was marked by the launch of a biography that Stewart Taylor has put a tremendous amount of work. Stuck in a Moment: The Ballad of Paul Vaessen is not your average insight into the life of an international superstar. It is an almost Shakespearean tragedy, one that most wouldn’t think to tell. But Stewart found Paul’s tale as compelling as it was heartbreaking and on the anniversary of his untimely death, bloggers and fans gathered in the WM club at the Emirates, to celebrate the book’s launch and also to remember the turbulent life of a forgotten man.
For those who are unaware of Paul Vaessen, he was born in Gillingham and joined Arsenal as a schoolboy in 1977. He was only sixteen when he made his debut and in the 1979-80 season he scored five goals in thirteen appearances. But it is one of these goals in particular that proved the highlight of his career, maybe even his life. On April the 23rd 1980, Arsenal travelled to Juventus for the Semi Final of the Cup Winners Cup. It was the second leg of the tie, the first of which had seen Arsenal held to a 1-1 draw in a bruising encounter with the Italian giants. Seventy five minutes into the game in Turin, the scoreline remained 0-0 and the Gunners were going out on away goals. Thanks to the efforts of Stewart Taylor, we were shown the last fifteen minutes of the tie, which he had managed to track down in the BFI library. We watched the stop-start recording as Terry Neill made his final roll of the dice, throwing on eighteen year old Paul Vaessen.
Tall and with a typically 80s head of hair, Vaessen jogged on in the number thirteen shirt tasked with finding a way through the Juve defence. Italian sides were notorious for their defensive capabilities and Juventus had never been defeated by a British side on home soil. With fifteen minutes left, a heroic failure beckoned as Martin Tyler informed us on commentary that the home fans ‘sensed victory’ and that for all Arsenal’s hard work they ‘hadn’t ever looked like finding an end product’. As host Tom Watt quipped afterwards, ‘These commentators never learn with the Arsenal do they?!’.
With two minutes to play, Graham Rix broke down the left of the Juventus box and from near the dead ball line, cut a looping cross over to the back post. There, ready for his moment in the spotlight, was the number thirteen. A prodigiously talented young forward who needed barely any of his fantastic technique and ability to seize his opportunity, headed home from no more than a yard. Paul said later on ‘I’ll never forget the silence when I scored. The firecrackers, the drums, the chanting all stopped. It was eerie.’. Not only had Paul silenced the usually irrepressible crowd at the Stadio Comunale, he’d propelled Arsenal into the final of the competition and in the process, condemned Juventus to their first home defeat to an English club. Not bad for a one yard tap in header.
The room erupted into applause at the end of the video; despite the game being nearly thirty five years in the past, that goal has lost none of its significance. But despite all the positives the goal brought for Paul, it ultimately proved to be his curse. Within two years of his moment of exquisite joy, Paul was faced with utter despair.
A serious knee injury proved to be the finishing blow for a career blighted by fitness problems. At twenty years old, Paul Vaessen should have been looking forward to a career at the very top of the game. Instead, he was being told that playing professionally again would leave him crippled. Without writing my own biography of the man, the heartbreak proved too much for the young man. Having tasted the highs the game had to offer, he ‘fell off a cliff’ as Tom Watt put it. Football had chewed him up and spat him out and now, feeling abandoned and forgotten he turned to drugs and alcohol in desperation, never able to move past or recapture the joy of that one brief moment. What followed was a tragic decline into petty crime and addiction. He was even stabbed during a failed drug deal in 1985. Despite his heart stopping twice during surgery, Paul survived, but his troubles continued. On August the 8th 2001, at the age of just thirty nine, Paul Vaessen was found dead in his flat, killed by an accidental drug overdose.
On August the 8th 2014, former team mates Graham Rix, Steve Walford, Paul Davis and Brian Talbot, along with former Arsenal reserves manager Roger Thompson gathered to talk about his career and life. Tom Watt asked the questions and the guests recalled that night in Turin, the season as a whole and of course, the young man who they played with. The memories were often fond, but tinged with sadness. To a man, the panel recalled Paul as not only a bright and ‘bubbly’ young man, but a very talented footballer. The goal against Juventus may have been simple for him to score, but Graham Rix stated that he believed he could have surpassed Frank Stapleton as a player, with the others giving similar testimonies to his impressive eye for goal. We were left in no doubt that injury robbed the football world of a very exciting talent. Paul Davis, who was the same age as Paul Vaessen, also commented on how Vaessen’s rise to the first team ranks gave hope and inspiration to the youth players that they too could play at the highest level.
After Tom Watt’s questions, question’s from the floor were invited. I was lucky enough to get to ask the last one, which was, in essence, ‘Is enough being done to prevent what happened to Paul happening again?’. Each of the guests had pretty much the same answer: no. Graham Rix and Steve Walford explained how, as teenagers signed to professional clubs, they had only one aim and that was to be a footballer. ‘You can’t convince a young lad that he shouldn’t focus on just football,’ said Graham, ‘that’s all there is to him.’.
Paul Davis highlighted the ‘Sporting Chance’ programme, championed by the PFA and said that more attention is now being focussed on players who either don’t make it or retire at the end of a full career. But the strongest reaction came from Brain Talbot, who was close to anger as he spoke. Having been chairman of the PFA in the past, he lambasted the current methods of clubs, who sign ‘far too many young players and make far too many promises. He continued ‘They take players from eight years old, which is ridiculous’ and also told us that 95% of academy players fail to progress into the senior teams. Roger Thompson echoed Brian’s point stating ‘there are far more sad stories than success stories.’.
Despite the sad subject matter, the evening was very enjoyable and as Steve Walford pointed out, we should remember Paul for that magic moment, not the tragedy that followed. It is, however, important to highlight that around the world, thousands of young footballers and athletes in other sports are facing similar situations to the one that Paul Vaessen faced. Brian was adamant and I completely agree, that professional football clubs must take a lot more responsibility for their young players as opposed to the mass sifting process that now seems the norm. A lot more must be done to ensure that the unhappy second half of Paul’s life isn’t played out in other young hopefuls. The Ballad of Paul Vaessen serves as a stark reminder that for all the unifying power of sport, it can be equally destructive.
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