My normal approach to blogging is somewhat akin to throwing darts at words that are written on scraps of paper and placed randomly on a dartboard. I’m then blindfolded. Then spun around 13 times until nausea kicks in. This story I’m about to tell you though, deserves better than my meandering prose. Those that are familiar will realise it is ironically just as much about missed chances as it is chances taken. Those that are not aware of this tale of glory and utter tragedy, like myself before last week, I hope to enrich your minds and raise awareness of a player that never got the opportunity to flower into the wonderful talent he so clearly evidenced. This is about the book ‘ Stuck in a Moment: The Ballad of Paul Vaessen ‘.
I was given the opportunity to attend the launch event for this book by a friend of mine who is a wonderful writer. He knew I would enjoy learning more about the rich history of our wonderful Club and gleaning it first hand from ex-Gunners always makes the tutorial more enjoyable. I leapt at the chance but felt strangely guilty as the player that the book centred on, I had little recollection of. My memory of Arsenal pre-1989 is hazy at best. Seeing as I was born in 1983, I don’t think that’s a terrible thing! I do try and read as many books, articles and blogs that explain and recount our humble beginnings and formative years. I see these events as our foundation. The annals of our past is as rich a tapestry as you’ll find in the entire sport and we are rightfully proud of them. Bastin, Brady, George, Mclintock O’Leary, Davis were all names that even Gooners with birthdays after the millenium would be aware of. Paul Vaessen however, escaped my knowledge.
I had heard of his name in conversations that skirt the memory, but remain in the background. This elusive name raised questions that I had to answer. I couldn’t very well go to an event housed at the Home of Football if I didn’t know who he was! If I’m honest with myself though, I was also frustrated at my own ignorance. A book had been written about this man, how do I not know of him?!
Upon commencing research, within about half an hour, realisation as to why Vaessens’ story needed to be told dawned upon me coldly. If you aren’t familiar, I’ll attempt to portray it as well as my vocabulary allows. I’ll start with the dazzling moment that Vaessen spent his life trying to recreate.
Paul Vaessen came to prominence on the 23rd of April 1980. It was a Uefa Cup Winners Cup Semi-Final at the home of Juventus. Juve were hot favourites, but seeing as we were the opponents, and of our constant disregard of stacked odds, we took the fight to them. Juve were filled with gems in their team, an XI that was peppered with class and nous. Zoff, Gentile, Prandelli, Bettega. It seemed that The Old Lady of Turin had plans for playing for the draw, seeing as a 1-1 draw and a vital away goal earned at Highbury would mean progress for the Turin side. The script was set for Italian progression, and much of the game, despite litres of sweat and elbow grease from our boys in yellow and blue, portrayed the Juventus approach. Each team had chances, but the game was agricultural to say the least.
A spritely Barry Davies made reference to the robust defensive nature of both teams and the cagey approach repeatedly. It seemed that even he thought it was written in stone that we would be eked out of the Tournament by the Italians with the swagger and gamesmanship. No one could envisage what this game, that had so far been turgid to watch, had in store.
The 78th minute saw the arrival of the fresh-faced Paul Vaessen, in place of the hard-working but ultimately futile David Price. No-one expected anything from Vaessen, to me it seemed as though Terry Neill was throwing dice on the craps table and hoping for 7’s. The goal was when Terry Neills’ gamble paid off in a big way.
At the launch event, the writer, Stewart Taylor, had tracked down a copy of the match in Turin, from the British Film Institution. It is the last copy in known existence. Audio sets a scene but seeing something paints a picture that can’t be matched. My thanks to the author for this, as the goal was special.
As mentioned previously, the game was a snooze-fest. seeing as it was a high-profile European game, with high stakes, the thought of losing another goal reigned in our attacking instincts, even though we were known for our defence back then. The match as a spectacle was a non-event. In direct contrast to that, the goal, set against a backdrop of scrappy play, seemed to have been derived from a higher plane. Vaessen had been placed wide-right and to pose a threat when crosses came in. The move started with a one-two between Graham Rix and Frank Stapleton, with Rix scampering away down the left after the only flowing move of the game swung open the notoriously rusty hinges on Juve’s backline. Out of view, no doubt Paul Vaessen sees that Rix is going to put in a cross. He must’ve bust a lung to get in the box. Acting on his Gaffers orders to get on the end of wide deliveries, he is in the box. The ball is distributed by Rix. It looks too high at first. The imperious Dino Zoff in the Juventus goal no doubt thinks so too, but it dips rapidly and Zoff comes to claim it. The ball that was swung in by Rix is also fast and powerful, quite a heady mix for a cross. The combination does enough to befuddle one of the games’ greatest Goalkeepers, who attempts to pluck it out of the air but gets caught underneath it, one glove excruciatingly near the ball but not close enough to divert its course. Its path was always meant for one man. Behind the flailing Zoff, is the opportunistic Vaessen. He nods it in on the 88th minute. It is enough to send the shellshocked favourites Juventus out of the Cup and enable Arsenal to progress to the Final. Pure Hollywood for the teenager. Roy of the Rovers-esque. What a beginning to what will hopefully be a fruitful career. The fruits did not, unfortunately, drop from the tree, instead they hung alluringly close yet out of reach.
Paul Vaessen retired from football in 1982, before he was 21. A serious knee injury abruptly ripping away any dreams Vaessen had of making a career of being a pro footballer, undoubtedly the only dream he had. In the book, the physio at Arsenal at the time, Fred Street, said that the injury was bad. Cartilage, mediate and cruciate were all done for. Nowadays, those words still strike fear into a fans heart when heard in conjunction with one of our players, but we are aware that the expertise that is at the Club is more than ample to not only maintain a career but to also curtail any absence to its minimum. Back in 1981, when the tackle that primarily started his sorrowful slide took place however, these sorts of ailments were unfortunately vocation-changers.
I could wax lyrical about the rest of the story regarding Vaessens’ catastrophic fall from grace, but the book illustrates it better than I could hope to. The Launch event for the book also gave me some insight and some answers to a few nagging questions I had burning away. Hopefully the Ex-Gunner panel that was present and fronted by the always affable Tom Watt would prove to be the balm that would soothe the irritation caused by my ignorance.
The Suite that was to hold the event was suave and classy, resembling a West End Wine Bar. My friend and I exchanged a few pleasantries with others and hastily took to the rows of seats, in Arsenal Red of course. The panel didn’t disappoint. Steve Walford, Brian Talbot, Graham Rix and Paul Davis. I won’t apologise when I say that when I met Paul, I had a slight fanboy moment, but he took it in his stride. Even when I forced a camera lens upon him, he just amiably smiled, his eyes screamed in cold terror though. Probably.
We watched the last 15mins, the most pertinent of the game, of the Arsenal Vs Juve game, and was then treated to the panel answering questions posed by the unflappable Watts. The usual soundbites were uttered by the players but a sadness that couldn’t quite be reached, tainted each response. They say that there is not much worse than talent wasted, but for that talent to not only go unflourished but for the rest of his short life to be mired in sadness makes it so much worse. It was great to hear from ex-players about behind the scenes back then, such as when Talbot stated that managers had an obsession with getting out their Best XI, regardless of knocks or niggles, with Talbot himself regularly needing cortisone injections and playing whilst not 100%. He also revealed that, during that 1980 season, due to the influx of matches Arsenal were playing due to Cup runs, training took a back-burner and the squad just focused on the next match. Can you imagine Arsene letting that happen now?! Can you even comprehend Diaby having a cortisone injection?
Paul Davis, the man, the Legend, revealed that he played football with Vaessen at youth level when Vaessen was plying his trade with Blackheath. He used to operate in the middle of the park, but it wasn’t until he came under the watchful gaze of Roger Thompson ( who was also part of the illustrious panel ) youth team coach at the time and mentor to many Arsenal household names, Davis among them, that his aerial talent and hold-up play was utilised correctly. Davis, in fact the whole panel, was in unanimous agreement that the boy could play and would have had a long career in football if his knee hadn’t have been brutalised in a reserve match against spurs. Graham Rix mentioned that, no matter if you’ve retired from playing in your late thirties or if you’re forced to give up the game you adore by the medical professional hired by your Club at 21, the buzz you get from the camaraderie of a tight-knit squad, the high you get from running out on the pitch in front of thousands, is something you will always attempt to replicate, but never will. Like a tired boxer stepping into the ring way past his ‘Best Before Date’, it seems the bright lights and adoring fans are an experience that is nigh-on impossible to recreate, leaving the rest of your life seeming to pale in comparison. What a horrible thought.
It was so insightful listening to these players talk about their past experiences and, more importantly, their memories of Paul. After hearing what they had to say, I felt somehow connected to his tale, much like if you hear his name in conversation, you will feel an impulsion to reveal what a dramatic riches-to-rags story Vaessen had.
After the panel had fielded a few audience questions, we all had an opportunity to get our books signed. I once more pestered Paul Davis like a human mosquito, his repeated attempts to ignore me were in vain. I got his signature, another photo and a personally autographed restraining order. After queuing up to gain endorsements from the rest of the panel, we left the lavish suite.
I noticed a few parallels that eerily cropped up whilst eagerly listening to the valuable anecdotes from the ex-Gunners. Last minute goal sends us through against the much fancied opponents, who had a team that were studded with world-class stars. Rix said no-one gave them a ” snowflake in Hells chance “. Juve were unbeaten at home against English opponents, so that’s one amazing home record. Premonitions of Anfield ’89 anyone? Like I mentioned earlier, we never had much regard for fancied adversaries or huge odds.
I could go into more detail, like how Juve were on massive money to win the game, how on the comeback trail from injury Paul was singled out by an unforgiving crowd, how Vaessen, all 6″2 of him, had the ideal frame and quick feet to succeed, how after his career was chopped mercilessly at 21 he found himself on the wrong end of the law, or how if Sporting Chance, the charity and clinic for struggling footballers and ex-pro’s had existed back then would Vaessen have successfully battled his demons, but that isn’t for me to surmise nor present to you. Not when the volume penned by Stewart does it better than I could ever hope to.
I implore you to read his story. I urge you to dig a bit deeper. Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Ian Wright, Tony Adams and countless other leading lights of The Cannon, all have their story and achievements mentioned and shown to all and sundry. Rightfully so as they contributed so much. The career of Paul Vaessen could have been mentioned in the same breath. We will never know. For one moment though, a sliver of time that is hazy in hindsight, Paul will live on as a Gunner that lived the dream and made fans delirious with pleasure. We can thank him for that.
My thanks to @plasticspam and @RoyalArsenalMRA for filling in my cerebral blank spots and giving their views. Invaluable stuff and a pleasure to meet you both.
I hope I’ve written at least a part of Paul Vaessen’s story with the integrity it warrants. I also wish that you enjoy reading my blithering musings.