Paul Vaessen: A tribute to Arsenal's Hero of Turin

This weekend would have marked Paul Vaessen's 60th birthday - read on for a heartfelt tribute by a loyal Arsenal supporter who knew him well

Paul Vaessen: A tribute to Arsenal's Hero of Turin

This weekend marks Paul Vaessen's 60th birthday. 

It is a tragedy that he’s not around to celebrate it with us.

When I think of Paul my mind drifts back to this day 39 years ago when, as a 13 year old, I was at Paul’s house in Lee, south east London, celebrating his 21st birthday.

It was a wonderful, happy, occasion that I will always cherish being part of. Looking at the photos from that night and seeing the smiles on everyone’s faces has brought it right back in to the present for me.

One picture in particular always makes me extremely happy when I look at it - a ‘team group’ photo of Paul, Brian Sparrow, Peter Nicholas, Danny O’Shea, Kenny Sansom and a 13 year old me - and I have to say that I was a little bit starstruck.

At that point in time I’d been around Paul all of my life and, if I’m honest I was always a bit in awe of him, even though he was my ‘cousin’.

We were from Bermondsey and Paul’s dad and my dad were best pals and our families did everything together, living in each others pockets for many years.

The night of Paul’s 21st birthday party was one of my childhood highlights - the fact Kenny Sansom was there chatting away to me, giving me career advice at 4am was just absolutely surreal.

For the record I never did become a professional snooker player or golfer, so I’m sorry about that Ken.

On the afternoon of Paul’s party The Arsenal had beaten West Bromwich Albion 2-0 at Highbury and ordinarily I’d have been at the match, but my mum said I couldn’t go as I wouldn’t be back in time to go to the party.

I remember feeling gutted to miss the game but in fairness it didn’t feel like too big a sacrifice as I knew some of the players would be coming along to the party on the nighttime, so it was a fair trade off.

I didn’t realise at that stage that Paul’s Arsenal career was over (I can’t remember exactly when it was confirmed to him, so maybe he didn’t even know) so I still believed that I’d be watching him play for many years to come and so this night was just one big celebration of his 21 years on the planet.

Paul had his tough moments at The Arsenal, but he had more good times on the pitch than bad. In a career blighted by injury he made just 41 first team appearances between 1978 and 1982, scoring nine goals.

He made his debut as a substitute at the tender age of 16 in a 4-1 UEFA Cup win away at Lokomotiv Leipzig and to this day he remains one of the youngest players to ever represent the club.

His League debut, his first start for the club, was away at Chelsea on 14 May 1979, two days after The Arsenal had beaten Manchester United 3-2 in the ‘Five Minute’ F.A. Cup Final.

The Chelsea game finished 1-1 and Paul’s strike partner that day, a certain Malcolm MacDonald, scored Arsenal’s goal.When it comes to Paul’s goals, the details are as follows.

His first goals came at Highbury on Tuesday, November 13, 1979 in a League Cup 4th round replay against Brighton & Hove Albion. Paul bagged a brace in an emphatic 4-0 win, with both Paul and Frank Stapleton scoring two headers apiece.

It was five months later that Paul notched his first League goal, doing so in April 1980 on Easter Monday, in a 2-1 North London Derby victory over Tottenham at White Hart Lane - a goal and a win that was enough to immortalise any player who was fortunate enough to don the famous red and white shirt of The Arsenal.

On St George’s Day 1980, and at just 18 years of age, Paul scored the most famous goal of his short career, the legendary 88th minute European Cup Winners Cup semi-final winner in the 1-0 win against the mighty Juventus in Turin.

Paul arrived at the far post to head the ball past Dino Zoff and propelled himself into football folklore. Even now, more than 41 years later, that triumph in Turin remains one of The Arsenal’s greatest ever European victories.

Paul’s next goal on May 3, 1980 was in far less glamorous surroundings but was almost as dramatic, snatching an 87th minute winner in a 1-0 win away at Coventry City.

Seven months later, on December 20, the same year, Paul headed the winner in a 2-1 win against Manchester United at Highbury.

The memory of that goal is made all the more special as Paul was wearing the famous No 7 shirt that was previously worn by club legends such as George Armstrong and Liam Brady.

His next goal was on January 10, 1981, when he continued his penchant for scoring last-gasp winners with a 90th minute goal in the 2-1 defeat of Everton at Goodison Park.

Paul’s next two goals, his last goals for the club, came in the space of just four days of each other and were both winning goals at Highbury.

These were the only goals of Paul’s career that I had the privilege to witness in person. The first was on January 30, 1982 in a 1-0 win against Leeds United, when Paul, again having the honour of wearing the famous No 7 shirt, went through one on one in front of the Clock End and slotted the ball past the on rushing future Arsenal stalwart, John Lukic, and in to the back of the net.

I was on the North Bank and bounced around like a lunatic, absolutely bursting with pride. This goal felt like Paul’s redemption after the awful abuse he’d suffered at the hands of the North Bank a couple of months earlier, when an abject Arsenal were knocked out of the UEFA Cup by Belgian minnows KFC Winterslag and Paul became the scapegoat of the frustrated crowd.

Just four days after his goal against Leeds, Arsenal faced Wolverhampton Wanderers in front of a crowd of just 15,163. During his pre-match warm up Paul spotted me in the North Bank and gave me a wave and I felt chuffed to bits as I waved back.

An uneventful game ensued but it sprung to life with 25 minutes to go. Arsenal took the lead through Graham Rix but Kenny Hibbit grabbed an equaliser for Wolves and the deflated crowd resigned itself to the game petering out into a depressing stalemate.

Then, with less than 10 minutes to go, a ball was played in to Paul, who, on the edge of the box and with his back to goal (and with that wonderful No 7 on his back), turned and swivelled and curled a stunning right foot shot in to the top corner of the net.

For me it was the most magical of moments as the sparsely populated North Bank erupted in celebration and Paul had racked up yet another late-late winner.

It was a beautiful goal and one befitting of being his last for The Arsenal. Paul went on to make just five more appearances for the club, retiring a few months later as a result of the damage to his knee.

Paul’s career was tragically short, and his true potential went unfulfilled, but it’s fair to say that he had a knack for scoring winning goals against the big teams (and Tottenham).

He also scored a 25 yard screamer in a 2-2 draw against Fulham at Craven Cottage in Ted Drake’s testimonial match in September 1979, and made an appearance against Celtic at Highbury in Sammy Nelson’s testimonial in November 1980, sharing the pitch with my soon to become footballing hero, Charlie Nicholas, who was just breaking in to the Celtic side.

Paul’s career, and his life, didn’t work out how they should have done, but he left his mark on me and on one of the most famous football clubs in the world - which means he will be remembered forever by those who study their Arsenal, and football, history.

On a personal level he cemented my love of The Arsenal. My grandad Ted, in conjunction with my nan’s cousin, Harry-boy, sewed the seeds and Paul etched the club in to my heart.

The experiences I’ve had following the team over land and sea this past 40 years, the lifetime friendships I’ve made, the ‘brothers’ I now have, may not have happened if it wasn’t for Paul.

That’s another positive legacy that he has left and one I will be forever thankful to him for.

Happy birthday cuz, may you continue to rest in peace. xx

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