Not all fairy tales end happily ever after
The story of Paul Vaessen, hero of Arsenal’s 1980 victory over Juventus, is a warning to all young stars.
You probably won’t remember Paul Vaessen. Not many people do. Like the Unknown Soldier, nobody even seems to know where he is buried after his death from drug abuse in 2001, aged just 39.
I remember Vaessen.
In fact, I wanted to be him. Just him, nobody else. And I wasn’t alone. In 1980, the unknown Arsenal teenager with the Dutch surname sealed a monumental win over mighty Juventus, their Champions League quarterfinal opponents this week.
I was 19 back in 1980. Arsenal weren’t given much of a chance in the semifinal at the Stadio Communale in Turin, where the grand old dame of Italian football hadn’t lost to an English club in 25 years of grim, defensive scrapping.
But then on came this 17-year-old substitute from Bermondsey to head the 89th-minute winner past the great Italian goalkeeper Dino Zoff that put his side into the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup. Suddenly he was a hero to all young Gunners; he told us he’d dreamt of scoring the winner—just like all the rest of us fanciful kids in red shirts with white sleeves.
But the tale that followed should serve as a lesson to all those who put their football before their schoolbooks as starry-eyed teenagers.
When Vaessen died in August 2001, there was not a word in the major newspapers the next day. Two weeks later, there was an all-too-brief mention in the Highbury programme. For years afterwards, when Arsenal came up against Juventus as they did this week, mention of Vaessen’s fairy-tale strike was made without anybody realising he was dead.
This is how the Bristol Observer, a small free newspaper, reported his death: “Drug addict Paul Vaessen was found dead in his Henbury home by a friend after overdosing, an inquest heard.” Not a mention of his glorious past.
Fourteen years after that goal he told a Sunday newspaper, in a rare interview: “I’ll never forget the silence when I scored. The firecrackers, the drums, the chanting all stopped. It was eerie. We made up for it in the bar afterwards. The champagne was out. We sang and laughed. The adrenalin buzz was fantastic. A few of the lads were driving around the hotel grounds on a tractor at four in the morning without a stitch on.”
He was described by legendary England and Arsenal coach Don Howe as “a big lad who tended to put on weight. Not bad in the air, not quick enough on the floor. But he had a nice touch.”
The extra weight may well have been his undoing. Vaessen, boosted by the goal against Juventus, went on to score nine goals in just 27 first-team games for Arsenal. Then came the moment every sportsman dreads. The big injury.
Vaessen missed the 1980 final—which Arsenal lost on penalties to Valencia—and then got crocked in a rugged North London derby against Spurs. The rest of his short career was blighted by visits to surgeons trying to fix the ligaments and tendons in his dodgy left knee. Four operations couldn’t cure it and the bones in his knee, thigh and hip began to fuse together.
By 1982 the dream was over, and Vaessen, who admitted to smoking cannabis at the tender age of 13, was chucking away his future.
He was to say years later: “I was 21 when the doors of Highbury were shut behind me. I’d been there since I was 15. I was on the scrapheap. I had no idea what to do.”
So he went back to his old school pals, and turned to heroin, cocaine and benzo-diazapan to ease the double-pronged pain of the shattered knee and the shattered dreams.
He worked as a builder and then as a postman. Then he mugged passersby and robbed warehouses to fund the drug habit that was costing him upwards of Â£100 a day.
He admitted: “I don’t know how I stayed out of jail.” Perhaps a spell in prison would have extended his life, which was spiralling out of control.
First his wife left him with his son Jamie. He moved back in with his footballing dad, Leon, who played for Millwall, but they parted when his behaviour grew increasingly erratic. He said: “I tried to give up drugs about eight times.” He never quite managed it.
Vaessen, the Juventus-conquering hero, found himself sleeping rough in the streets. “I slept where I fell,” he recalled. Then he was stabbed six times in a side street off the grim Old Kent Road in east London after a drugs transaction went wrong. He “died” twice on the operating table at Guy’s hospital.
In May 1993, he was reported to have admitted himself to a detox clinic in Bexleyheath for seven weeks. Then he drifted to the small town of Andover, seeking anonymity. He became a painter and met a new girfriend, Sally; they had a daughter and a son.
Then, like so many fallen sportsmen, he found Jesus. He claimed to have reformed, and planned to become a physiotherapist like his old goalkeeping mate, Gary Lewin, now the Arsenal and England physio.
In 1994, a born-again Christian, Vaessen was quoted as saying: “There are a lot of young kids out there who are doing drugs and feel they have lost all hope. I know, because I have lived through the same thing. I’m telling my story to show there is a way out.”
But even Jesus couldn’t save him.
He’d still try to stop for a kick-about with the lads in the park after he ended up in Farnborough, another small, anonymous English country town.
A neighbour at the time recalls: “Paul always used to talk about his days at Arsenal and told the story of his goal many times. He’d play football with the kids, limping around. He used to say he wasn’t looked after by Arsenal. He used to drink a lot. Then he went back on heroin.”
Vaessen and the new woman in his life separated. His children, Abigail and Jack, apparently bore the brunt of his frustration—and violence.
In 1998, Vaessen was charged with stealing a pair of women’s tights from the Asda supermarket in Farnborough. He fell in the supermarket toilet, hurt the old left leg, and kicked out at a policeman. He was jailed for 90 days for assault, although the conviction was later quashed on appeal.
His solicitor, Andrew Purkiss, told Aldershot magistrates: “Twenty years ago, my client was on top of the world with everything to look forward to. But, at 21, he was told he would be crippled if he played football again. His whole life was turned upside down and he was totally desperate. In those days, there was no counselling or after-playing help and he was told by Arsenal, ‘Goodbye and good luck’.”
On the night of the millennium, Vaessen had one last row with Sally. He left for Bristol, where this tragic tale ends. On August 8 2001, a friend called Jason Murphy found Vaessen dead in the bathroom of a house they shared. He called an ambulance but this time even the operating table was beyond Vaessen.
A post-mortem revealed high levels of drugs in Vaessen’s blood. Coroner Paul Forrest recorded a verdict of accidental death.
Lewin says: “It is very, very sad. Devastating. Dying under circumstances like that, you feel it is just a waste of a life.”
So, remember this tragic story when young Cesc Fabregas, goal-scoring hero of Tuesday’s Arsenal vs Juventus showdown, struts around the Stadio Delle Alpi after the second leg next week. Not all fairy tales end happily ever after.