By Tony Attwood
Paul Leon Vaessen’s story is the most tragic in football – and that is saying everything, for football endlessly seems to produce more tragedies than it does fun and laughter.
He was born on 16 October 1961 and died 8 August 2001 having played just 32 league games for Arsenal, his only club.
He made his debut at the age of 16 against in the Uefa Cup game against Lokomotive Leipzig on 27 September 1978 and his league debut against Chelsea on 14 May 1979. His moment of overwhelming fame was when he scored against Juventus in the second leg of a 1980 Cup Winners Cup Semi Final on 23 April 1980.
Arsenal had drawn the first leg 1–1 at home and needed a single goal to go through. Paul Vaessen came on as a sub on 75 minutes and scored on 88 to take Arsenal to the final. But then injuries affected him and he was forced to retire from football before he was 21 having played 39 games and scored nine goals. When he died no national papers ran obituaries.
Of his moment of fame Paul Vaessen said, ‘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.’
But the injuries came and it all went wrong as he found compensation for his sudden loss of his job and his world. At 21 he had had a life, and lost it, and turned to drugs and they killed him.
After football he found occasional work on building sites and as a postman but turned to crime to pay for the drugs. His wife left, and eventually his parental family found they couldn’t cope with his drug habit. He slept on the street.
A knife attack following a drugs deal left him in intensive care but he could not cope without the drugs so left hospital after four days (as the Guardian later said, he should have stayed for four months). He did recover, met a new lady, got a job as a paint sprayer, had a son, converted to Christianity, and thought of becoming a physio but the pain of his knee injury forced him out of work, and eventually he returned to drugs as his body failed to copy with the multiple football induced operations.
At the end the Bristol Observer reported of Paul Vaessen: ‘The 40-year-old had been battling with a drug habit and was on methadone therapy, a substitute for heroin, when he died on August 8. A post-mortem revealed high levels of drugs in Mr Vaessen’s blood. Coroner Paul Forrest recorded a verdict of accidental death.’
As the Guardian said, “He was actually 39, a man for whom birthdays had probably become irrelevant.”
It is a terrible story, and if there is a life after death I guess all of us who remember that night in Turin would want Paul to know for certain that we do remember him and the better days.