Some people chase that 15 minutes of fame. Paul Vaessen had his in Turin on April 23, 1980.
It should have been the start of a glittering Arsenal career.
Instead, it was the beginning of the end and the first chapter in his tragic story.
With a little over 15 minutes left at the Stadio Comunale, boss Terry Neill and Gunners coach Don Howe turned to the substitutes bench as they searched for a game-changing solution.
Arsenal were drawing 0-0 with Juventus in the second leg of the European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final. A 1-1 draw at Highbury in the first-leg meant that as things stood, the Old Lady would secure their place in the final on away goals. As well as needing a goal to go through, the Gunners would have to be the first-ever British team to beat Juve on Italian soil.
Howe turned to 18-year-old Vaessen, giving him the simple message: “Go on Paul, knock one in for us.”
Born in Gillingham on October 16, 1961, Vaessen as part of a working-class family. His father, Leon, played football too, featuring for Millwall, Gillingham, Dover and Crawley Town in the 50s and 60s.
Joining Arsenal as an apprentice in 1977, Paul's debut came a year later, aged just 16 in a UEFA Cup tie with Lokomotive Leipzig. May 1979 brought a league debut and a professional contract arrived in June as he demonstrated his potential with five goals in 13 appearances in 1979/80.
One of those strikes was to change his life - against Juventus on that fateful evening 40 years ago today, Graham Rix crossed with just two minutes to play and the young striker did the rest, nodding the ball past the legendary Dino Zoff.
Overnight, he would go from a working-class Bermondsey boy to an Arsenal hero. But, rather than being the start of a memorable career, it was a moment he clung to, one he desperately tried to relive as his life spiralled out of control.
Vaessen didn’t play in the 1980 final as the Gunners lost to Valencia, and although he would go on to make 39 appearances for the club, scoring nine goals, he was forced to retire aged just 21 in 1982.
Ruptured knee ligaments led to three operations. A device that wouldn’t look out of place in a torture chamber was attached to the knee, but far from fixing the issue, it would cripple his leg. As the doors of Highbury's legendary Marble Halls slammed shut behind him, his spiral began.
Paul’s descent into addiction
Vaessen turned to drugs. Heroin, cocaine, benzo-diazepam. Despite occasionally working as a postman and on building sites, he robbed and stole to maintain his crippling habit. It often landed him in court, but he would somehow stay out of prison.
His home life was out of control too. His wife left him, taking their 16-year-old son. He moved back in with his parents who were shocked by his drug habit. With nowhere to go, he hit the street.
His addiction would nearly cost him his life in 1985 when a drug deal on the Old Kent Road in south east London went wrong. He was stabbed six times from his armpit to his waist. He lost 40 pints of blood and his heart stopped twice on the operating table. Somehow, he survived and four days in intensive care followed. He should have been there for months, but he booked himself out and returned to the street.
Addiction and homelessness hit Vaessen hard
Barely eating or sleeping, he recalled years later trying to give up drugs on several occasions, including a seven-week spell in a Bexleyheath detox clinic in 1993. Despite his efforts, he never kicked his habit.
Following his stabbing, he moved to Andover where he met Sally Tinkler. They lived there for a year before moving to Farnborough. The home of British aviation seemed like the perfect place for Vaessen to get off the ground and turn his life around.
He found God and planned to go to college to train as a sports physiotherapist. He would also play football with kids in local parks, often telling stories about his time at Arsenal and that goal against Juventus. His career was still eating away at him though and despite the attempts to get his life back on track, he soon derailed.
The career that he would talk so passionately about had left him in agony. As well as his knee operations, his hip, thigh and knee bones had been fused together. He could barely straighten his left leg and although this didn’t stop him having the odd kickabout, he was still using heroin to ease the pain.
A spiral of addiction for tragic Paul
As his drug use continued, Vaessen was evicted from the house by court order and moved to Bristol. He would be back in Farnborough soon enough though as he was charged with assaulting a policeman after stealing women's tights from the town's Asda supermarket in 1998.
Vaessen's solicitor, Andrew Purkiss, told Aldershot magistrates: “This is a very tragic case. Twenty years ago, my client was on top of the world with everything to look forward to. But, at 21, he was told by doctors he would be crippled if he played professional football again.”
Vaessen still clung onto that moment when he was on top of the world, but that only worsened his uncontrollable spiral and deepening despair.
He was sentenced to 90 days for the assault and was bailed on the condition that he resided at his brother's home in Henbury, north of Bristol. This is where Paul’s life would end.
The sad death of the Hero of Turin
On August 8, 2001, he was found dead in the bathroom of the house he shared with his brother. Unlike in 1985, he could not be saved. A post-mortem revealed high levels of drugs in his blood, with the coroner recording a verdict of accidental death.
The Bristol Observer reported his age as 40. He was actually 39, showing just how forgotten Arsenal’s young hero of April 23, 1980, had become.
During Vaessen's 1998 assault case, his solicitor, Mr Purkiss told the court: “His whole life was turned upside down and he was totally desperate. In those days there was no counselling or after-playing help.”
Vaessen may still be alive now if the help he needed was available. Sadly, it wasn’t. He lived the dream of playing football, of scoring a goal, of being a hero. He clung to that dream, that goal, that moment, as his life became a nightmare and his tragic tale unfolded.
Ultimately, what should have been the beginning for Paul was, in fact, the beginning of the end. His greatest achievement, his moment in the spotlight, would cost him his life.
This article appeared in the Islington Gazette
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