By Dan Betts
Paul Vaessen. It's not a name that chimes a familiar sound with many Arsenal supporters, but it could have been.
Those who are familiar with Vaessen will know the story I am about to tell is ironically as much about missed chances as chances taken. Those not aware of this tale of glory and tragedy I hope to enrich by raising awareness of a player who never got the opportunity realise his potential. This is about the book 'Stuck in a Moment: The Ballad of Paul Vaessen'.
My memory of Arsenal pre-1989 is hazy at best, however, seeing as I was born in 1983, I don't think that's a terrible thing! I try to read as much of anything I can get my hands on that describe 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 sport and we are rightfully proud of them. Bastin, Brady, George, McLintock, O'Leary, Davis are names even supporters born after the millennium are aware of. Paul Vaessen however, escaped my knowledge.
The name had an odd familiarity from hazy conversations skirting the edges of memory but the story of the man was an unexplored mystery. 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!
"No-one expected anything from Vaessen but it was a risky substitution that would pay dividends"
I soon realised why Vaessen's story needed to be told. I'll start with the moment that Vaessen spent his life trying to recreate.
Vaessen came to prominence on April 23, 1980. It was a European Cup Winners' Cup semi-final at the home of Juventus. Juve were hot favourites but Arsenal never held much regard for stacked odds and took the fight to them. The Juventus squad was filled with gems - Zoff, Gentile, Prandelli, Bettega to name but four.
The Old Lady of Turin played for the draw as a vital away goal earned at Highbury would mean progress for them. Both teams had chances, but the game was agricultural to say the least. Even a spritely Barry Davies thought it was written in stone that we would be squeezed out of the tournament by the Italians. 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 Vaessen, in place of David Price. No-one expected anything from Vaessen but it was a risky substitution that would pay dividends.
For the launch event the writer, Stewart Taylor, had tracked down the last known copy of the match in Turin from the British Film Institution. Audio sets a scene but the video can't be matched. My thanks to Stewart for this as the goal was a joy to watch.
Vaessen had been placed wide right and instructed to pose a threat when crosses came in. The decisive move in the 88th minute starts with a one-two between Graham Rix and Frank Stapleton, with Rix scampering away down the left. Out of view Vaessen no doubt sees that Rix is going to put in a cross and busts a lung to get in the box. The ball is delivered by Rix and it looks too high at first, but it dips rapidly.
Zoff comes to claim it but the pace on the cross befuddles one of the game's greatest keepers, and he gets caught underneath it. Behind the flailing Zoff is the opportunistic Vaessen, and he nods it in on the 88th minute. It is enough to send the shell-shocked favourites Juventus out of the cup and enable Arsenal to progress to the final.
It was pure Hollywood for the teenager. Roy of the Rovers-esque. What a way to announce yourself to the world. Sadly, that was the beginning, the peak and almost the end of Paul’s brief career in football.
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 as a pro footballer - the only dream he had. In the book, the physio at Arsenal at the time, Fred Street, said the injury was bad and the cartilage, mediate and cruciate, was all done for. Back in 1981 these sorts of ailments were unfortunately vocation-changers.
At the book launch event we watched the last 15 minutes of the Juve game and were then treated to a panel of Paul Davis, Graham Rix and others answering questions about Vaessen, Arsenal and the fragility of football careers.
Davis 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, after Vaessen came under the watchful gaze of Roger Thompson (who was also part of the panel), the youth team coach and mentor to Davis among others, his aerial talent and hold-up play was utilised correctly.
The whole panel was in agreement that Vaessen could play and would have had a long career in football if his knee hadn't been brutalised in a reserve match against Spurs. 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 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 to pale in comparison. What a horrible thought but one that offers something of an answer as to why Vaessen's life after football went down the path it did.
I could go into more detail about how on the comeback trail from injury Paul was singled out by an unforgiving crowd, how Vaessen, all 6 ft 2 of him, had the ideal frame and quick feet to succeed, how after his career he found himself on the wrong end of the law, or how if Sporting Chance, the charity and clinic, had existed back then it could have helped Vaessen battle his demons. The book tells those stories far better than I could.
I implore you to read his story. I urge you to dig a bit deeper. Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Ian Wright, Tony Adams and other leading lights all have their stories told and rightly so. The career of Vaessen could have been mentioned in the same breath, but he still will live on as a Gunner that lived the dream - however briefly. We can thank him for that.