Paul Vaessen: The Arsenal Legend That Could Have Been
Paul Vaessen, it's not a name that chimes a familiar sound with many Arsenal supporters but if not for a moment that did happen, or for one that didn't, it could have been. Paul Vaessen could have been a name spoken in the same breathy tones as names that fill a permanent space in our hearts yet still create an aching yearn as you reminisce and wish they could still be playing.
Those who are familiar will realise the story I am about to tell is ironically just as much about missed chances as it is chances taken. Those whom are not aware of this tale of glory and utter tragedy, like myself before last week, I hope to enrich by raising awareness of a player that never got the opportunity to flower into the wonderful talent he so clearly evidenced. This is about the book 'Stuck in a Moment: The Ballad of Paul Vaessen'.
I was given the opportunity to attend the launch event for this book by a friend of mine who knew I would enjoy learning more about the rich history of our wonderful Club; and gleaning it first hand from ex-Gunners always makes the tutorial all the more enjoyable. Despite leaping at the chance like a salmon I felt strangely guilty as I had little recollection of the player the book is centred on.
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 entire sport and we are rightfully proud of them. Bastin, Brady, George, Mclintock O'Leary, Davis are names even supporters born after the millenium are aware of. Paul Vaessen however, escaped my knowledge.
The name had an odd familarity 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! If I'm honest with myself though, I was also frustrated at my own ignorance. A book had been written about this man, how do I not know of him?!
Upon commencing research realisation as to why Vaessens' story needed to be told quickly dawned upon me coldly. If you aren't familiar, I'll attempt to portray it as well as my vocabulary allows. I'll start with the dazzling moment that Vaessen spent his life trying to recreate.
Paul Vaessen came to prominence on the 23rd of April 1980. It was a UEFA Cup Winners Cup Semi-Final at the home of Juventus. Juve were hot favourites, but seeing as we were the opponents, and considering our constant disregard of stacked odds, we took the fight to them. Juve were filled with gems in their team, an XI that was peppered with class and nous. Zoff, Gentile, Prandelli, Bettega. It seemed The Old Lady of Turin had plans for playing for the draw, seeing as a 1-1 draw and a vital away goal earned at Highbury would mean progress for the Turin side. The script was set for Italian progression, and much of the game, despite litres of sweat and elbow grease from our boys in yellow and blue, portrayed the Juventus approach. Each team had chances, but the game was agricultural to say the least.
A spritely Barry Davies made reference to the robust defensive nature of both teams and the cagey approach repeatedly. It seemed that even he thought it was written in stone that we would be eked out of the tournament by the Italians with the swagger and gamesmanship. 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 Paul Vaessen, in place of the hard-working but ultimately futile David Price. No-one expected anything from Vaessen, to me it seemed as though Terry Neill was throwing dice on the craps table and hoping for 7's. Soon after though, Terry Neills' gamble paid off in a big way.
At the launch event the writer, Stewart Taylor, had tracked down a copy of the match in Turin from the British Film Institution. It is the last copy in known existence. Audio sets a scene but seeing something paints a picture that can't be matched. My thanks to the author for this, as the goal was truly special and a joy to watch.
It was a high-profile European game, with high stakes, and the thought of losing another goal reigned in our attacking instincts, even though we were known for our defence back then. The match as a spectacle was a non-event. In direct contrast to that, the goal, set against a backdrop of scrappy play, seemed to have been derived from a higher plane.
Vaessen had been placed wide-right and instructed to pose a threat when crosses came in. The move started with a one-two between Graham Rix and Frank Stapleton, with Rix scampering away down the left after the only flowing move of the game swung open the notoriously rusty hinges on Juve's backline. Out of view Paul Vaessen no doubt sees that Rix is going to put in a cross and busts a lung to get in the box. Acting on his Gaffers orders to get on the end of wide deliveries, he is in the box. The ball is distributed by Rix. It looks too high at first. The imperious Dino Zoff in the Juventus goal no doubt thinks so too, but it dips rapidly and Zoff comes to claim it.
The ball that was swung in by Rix is also fast and powerful, quite a heady mix for a cross. The combination does enough to befuddle one of the games' greatest Goalkeepers, who attempts to pluck it out of the air but gets caught underneath it, one glove excruciatingly near the ball but not close enough to divert its course. Its path was always destined for one man. Behind the flailing Zoff, is the opportunistic Vaessen. He nods it in on the 88th minute. It is enough to send the shellshocked favourites Juventus out of the Cup and enable Arsenal to progress to the Final. Pure Hollywood for the teenager. Roy of the Rovers-esque. What a beginning to what will hopefully be a fruitful career. The fruits did not, unfortunately, drop from the tree, instead they hung alluringly close yet out of reach.