Paul Vaessen : The Good, The Bad And The Ugly Of Football

By Les Crang

Part One of a mini-series on the late Arsenal forward

This is a three-part series on an Arsenal player called Paul Vaessen, with some interviews to follow up. My interest in this player stems from the fact that, at 18 years of age, he scored the winning goal at Juventus in a European Cup-Winners Cup semi-final. Three years later, he retired from football with knee trouble and little financial help from the club. During his last three years, in pain, Vaessen was often mercilessly derided. Eighteen years later, he died in Bristol of a heroin overdose.

Paul Vaessen

I wanted to divide this into three sections. The first, the lead-up to and scoring of the Juventus goal. Secondly, the next three years - his goals, injury problems and depression. Thirdly, Paul Vaessen’s life and death after football. I have looked into making this into a book at some stage, but I wanted to tell the story of an unknown Arsenal hero. A man who should be on the Emirate walls. I think it would be fitting to the memory of Paul Vaessen. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Ian Castle, for helping in the writing of this article, and Arsenal Collective.

In 2001, Arsenal lost a player who retired from the game. A semi-final cup-winning scorer. A player who had a young family. To many Arsenal fans, this would mean David ‘Rocky’ Rocastle. Rocky was given a minute’s silence when he passed away and we played Spurs that day (who showed respect during the silence). But my story is not about Rocky (a great player and fine professional), but about a player called Paul Vaessen. To many Arsenal fans, his name might not mean much, but to me in 1980, supporting Arsenal, Vaessen was a hero.

In April 1980, Paul Vaessen scored the winning goal at Juventus as an 18-year old substitute with three minutes to go, sending Arsenal into their second-ever European final, and ending Juventus’ record of being undefeated at home by an English team (a feat not repeated until Manchester United won their semi-final there in 1999). A mere three years later, Paul Vaessen would retire from football with a knee injury. From the heady heights of Rome as an 18-year old, Paul would sink into a world of decline and drugs that would cost him his life before the age of forty. Paul Vaessen is often the forgotten man of Arsenal FC, and that is why I would like to write about him.

Paul Leon Vaessen was born on 16th October, 1961. His father, Leon, played professional football for Millwall and Gillingham in the 1950s and 1960s, before falling down the divisions, ending his career at Crawley. Paul soon followed in his father’s footsteps, joining Arsenal in 1977, turning professional in 1979, and representing the team at every level that season (youth, reserve and league). Paul Vaessen had scored his goal in November 1979 against Brighton in the League Cup. The Times headline for the match called it Vaessen, a young man with his head in the air, the article said of his performance ‘Finding space and each other with contemptuous simplicity, Arsenal led after four minutes. Their eager, surprisingly composed 19-year-old forward Vaessen, who replaced Sunderland, attracted instant admiration for a short, powerful sprint on the right wing, taking him yards clear of his pursuers.’ Of his goal they said ‘Brady bad clipped their cross- bar as well 'as baffled them with his mastery of angles, and then he inflicted worse with a tantalising, dipping cross over the goalkeeper to the far post, from 'where Vaessen headed his first deserved goal.’ Arsenal ran out 4-0 winners, with Vaessen taking the plaudits.

Vaessen was also in a team that would be playing in two finals and also be remembered for playing in the longest FA cup semi-final in history against Liverpool. By the end of 1979-80, Arsenal would play 70 games.

While Arsenal were fighting for a European cup, the FA did what their initials suggested when game-congestion started. This certainly was underlined when the noisy neighbours of Spurs made us play them on Easter Monday, 1980, when we had to play Juventus at home in the European Cup-Winners Cup semi-final on the Wednesday. Accordingly, Terry Neill – then the Arsenal manager - put out a weakened team, playing not only Vaessen but handing Arsenal’s finest uncapped player, Paul Davis, his debut (how did Carlton Palmer get capped and Davis not?). Of Davis’ debut The Times said he ‘strolled into the game with almost veteran assurance’. The Times headline for the match said it all against poor Spurs. Arsenal have enough in reserve to handle Spurs. Vaessen scored with a thumping header. Arsenal went on to win 2-1 at WHL and Arsenal fans to sing for the next few years ‘we beat Spurs with six reserves’. So Paul Vaessen’s first league goal was against Spurs? What more can you ask for as an Arsenal fan (especially in the early 1980s)?

So, although Arsenal rested the likes of Pat Jennings, Sammy Nelson, Graham Rix, David Price and Frank Stapleton for the match, they still had to play the mighty Juventus at home two days later at Highbury. The game was not for the faint-hearted. I think, for many younger fans, playing an Italian team was not something to look forward to back then. Italian football was marked by some of the finest players in the world and some of the most downright dirty players I have ever watched. The admirable players would be Gaetano Scirea, Juventus’ flawless sweeper; up front was Roberto Bettega, who had destroyed England in the World Cup Qualifiers three years previously. Bettega would certainly have an impact in the first game. The more aggressive players included centre-half, Claudio Gentile (his man-marking of Maradona in the 1982 World Cup was an example of his attitude to defending). In the middle was probably the finest holding-midfielder in Italy ever, Marco Tardelli. Think Patrick Vieira on steroids. Italian football was also based on catenaccio. In other words, defending. Deep. Very Deep.

The first game at Highbury is the thing of legends amongst fans. Dirty. Aggressive. A couple of goals. A penalty. A penalty save and a red card. The game’s aggressive approach was underlined in the 20th minute with Bettega ‘leaving his foot in’ on David O’Leary, leaving the usually charming Neill to say after the match ‘we had to take the studs out of O’Leary’. The Arsenal fans instead screamed ‘You F***ing W***er’. Things couldn’t get worse. Until Brian Talbot hacked Bettega down for a penalty. Up steps Antonio Cabrini to take the penalty, only for Big Pat to get a hand to it, but knocking it towards the onrushing Cabrini to slam home. Arsenal 0 Juventus 1. Juventus played to stifle the game. Unfortunately, Juventus got Tardelli sent off, but still retained a strong line at the back. Late in the game, Arsenal got a free-kick and threw in a high ball for Stapleton at the back stick to keep the ball in play. Bettega, under pressure, headed into his own net. Full-time whistle - Arsenal 1 Juventus 1. Vaessen played for six minutes, after coming on for John Devine.

But what type of player was Paul Vaessen? Don Howe said of him ‘'He was a big, heavy boy, inclined to put weight on; he needed to get a little bit quicker. He was not bad in the air. If you said give me an example of someone he was like, I'd say Niall Quinn. He had a nice touch, he could handle the ball. He was a terrific prospect”. Gary Lewin, Arsenal physio and youth-team goalkeeper at the time, was friends with him. He said of him in an interview ‘'Paul was a young professional when I was an apprentice. When I was in the youth team as a goalkeeper, he was a regular reserve-team player as a centre-forward. He had a very promising career”. Vaessen seemed set for great things, and this was to be underlined against Juventus.

Two weeks later, Arsenal had to face the mighty Juventus at Stadio Comunale Vittorio Pozzo. As a previous writer has indicated, with ‘no such thing as TV coverage of anything as unimportant as a European semi-final’ in 1980, radio was the call of the day unless you were one of 500 travelling away fans. The Arsenal team was as follows - Jennings, Rice, Devine, Talbot (Hollins 80), O'Leary, Young, Brady, Sunderland, Stapleton, Price (Vaessen 77), Rix. Most pundits had written off Arsenal’s chances of making the final. With the scores from the first leg standing at 1-1, Arsenal had either to win or draw 2-2 or higher. Juventus were a team known for their defensive acumen, as mentioned previously, so Arsenal had to win. In Italy.

Not only that, Roberto Bettega was the star of Italian football, so Neill’s comments “we had to take the studs out of O’Leary” in the first leg had created a cauldron of hate. After the first match, Neill had added, when speaking to the Italian press, “You must be ashamed. It must be difficult admitting you are Italian tonight”. O’Leary was incensed that Bettega’s tackle was ‘criminal’ and disgusted he didn’t even come to see him after the match.

Upping the tempo was Juventus chairman Giampiero Boniperti saying “Neill’s behaviour was unacceptable and he should be fired”. Animosity between the teams had reached such heights that Juventus’ General Manager warned Arsenal fans and players that “the atmosphere will be very tense. Feelings have been inflamed by newspaper reports of what was said at Highbury. We fear our fans may be planning something for Arsenal. They are very angry that Juventus players have been called animals”.

Bettega had also tried to diffuse the situation by inviting Neill and O’Leary onto his TV show he had at the time. O’Leary refused, but Neill did go. During the interview, Bettega asked about his violent reaction to the incident. Neill responded “I am not a violent man, but I reacted to the situation as I saw it. I don’t regret a word I said”. Hardly conciliatory.

So Arsenal went to the game with the odds highly stacked against them. But they did have the advantage that Tardelli was suspended for the match. Then Juventus lost defender Sergio Brio prior to the game. This meant that Gentile was moved from full- back to centre-half. Neill felt this acted to our advantage with Sunderland’s and Stapleton’s aerial prowess, saying “both our front men are accomplished in the air. It will be important for us to use them well as Juventus will miss a key player like Brio”. Aerial prowess would certainly win the day, but from a more unknown source than Sunderland and Stapleton.

It seems ironic in this time of wall-to-wall football via Sky, blogs, Twitter and other social media, that football on April 23rd, 1980 was not televised live for a European Semi-final. People had three ways of gathering information on the second leg. First, if you were brave enough, go to the game in Turin (500 souls did). Secondly, you could check on the score via a new technology called Ceefax (if you had a new television). Or via the most common way, the transistor radio. This is why Jon Spurling called them a ‘transistor match’.

Ian Turner, who lived in Turin at the time, went to the match saying “It was a weird experience, and actually very annoying. For a start I couldn’t really see a f***ing thing because of these stupid firecrackers. But in the second half, the Juventus fans started to lose their arrogance and got a bit edgy, and the fires died down........Arsenal were by far the better side and Brady and Rix probed and probed..........But with ten minutes to go, Juventus fans believed they’d got it in the bag.......Arsenal sent on a guy by the name of Vaessen who, to be honest, I’d never heard of........I remember Willie Young chopped down Scirea - you know, took him out of the game and trotted forward to try and increase the pressure, and the Italians began to panic. It was as if Young’s tackle knocked all the stuffing out of them.......Then Rixy got the ball on the left and I remember looking at the ref who checked his watch. Rix floated in a lazy cross which sailed over Zoff’s head towards Vaessen. All the Italians watched now, as this ‘nobody’ Vaessen nodded the ball into the net.”

The Times wrote of the goal:- ‘The goal, if there was to be one, was bound to be borne of a cross. Rix, taking the ball far out on the left wing, threw over a long, hopeful Cross and there was Vaessen, bless him, to thrust home his header.’ For the first time in 11 attempts a British side had triumphed in Turin. At the final whistle the Arsenal players went to applaud a small band of supporters in one corner of, the ground. Unfortunately this only drew attention to their presence and there were frightening scenes of violence on the terraces as Italians and English supporters pelted each other with stones and bottles.

More than a few fans listening on transistor radio in England were elated by the score. One fan wrote “Sitting in my bath it probably took me a half-second longer. Then, like Vaessen, I too leapt into the air - and screamed. And as we all learnt at school, for every action there is a reaction; in this instance my action caused a flood of tsunami magnitude to sweep unstoppably across the bathroom floor”.

With two minutes left, Arsenal just had to hold out. Juventus just didn’t have the time or the will. 1-0 to the Arsenal. We had beaten Juventus. The Arsenal. By a late goal. Sounds like some other Arsenal games. After the match, Terry Neill said “It has got to be one of the best European results ever”. Goal-hero Vaessen said afterwards “Incredibly, I had a dream last night that I would come on as substitute and score the winning goal. It is all so exciting”. Vaessen said years later of the substitute appearance and the goal “A 0-0 draw would have put us out on the away-goals rule,..... That was the score when coach Don Howe sent me on with about 15 minutes left. I remember him saying, ‘Go on Paul, knock one in for us.’ And I replied, ‘Yeah, OK’”. For years, Vaessen cherished what happened next - “I'll never forget the silence when I scored. The firecrackers, the drums, the chanting all stopped. It was eerie”.

After the interviews, the players celebrated wildly. John Hollins, at 34 a veteran, was found driving down the corridor on a moped. Vaessen said later of the evening “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”.

Paul Vaessen had become a hero at 18 years of age. Arsenal were in two finals in that year, joining Nottingham Forest in a European final. What could possibly go wrong for either Arsenal or Vaessen?

Well, plenty. Vaessen played in neither final. Arsenal lost the F.A Cup to West Ham United and then four days later lost a penalty shoot-out to Valencia in the Cup-Winners Cup. Also, Arsenal’s star player, Liam Brady, was sold to Juventus for £650,000. That was bad enough for the team, but Vaessen’s luck would get worse than Arsenal’s displays in the following seasons. But that’s another story.

To be continued

5th February 2013 09:00:00


Comments and Reaction

User comments on this article are now closed. If you want to continue the debate, why not do so on the Gooner Forum.

Tony Evans  13:58pm 5th Feb 2013

Really interesting article, Les, and I am very sorry to hear that Paul Vaessen's life was such a sad one in the end, and of course cut so cruelly short. My best mate and I were listening to that Juventus match on the radio, and Paul's goal was unbelievable and is one of my great memories of games gone by. Shame that both finals of 1980 gave me two of my worst! - Post No. 34198

Ron  14:04pm 5th Feb 2013

Good stuff. PS Dont you just love that kit hes wearing? The real Arsenal kit. Never should have been changed to this day in my view. - Post No. 34200

Jak  14:04pm 5th Feb 2013

Remember that goal well, was 13 at the time, and at school the next day we were all Vaessen in the playground. Tragic story, died in debt and alone. - Post No. 34201

Dan h  14:13pm 5th Feb 2013

Great read Les it's a story that needs to be told.For me 1980 was the first season i truly remember the 78 final i remember but it didn't really register the feelings of disappointment losing.In 1980 the team beat better teams in the semi-finals Liverpool in the f.a cup only to be beaten by West Ham.The cup winners cup semi to beat Juventus in Turin was a magnificent result against the odds.Sadly for other than gooners of that era it's glossed over because we lost the final.Paul Vaessen like many young players of that day that had serious knee problems there was not the treatment there is today.Paul Vaessen the man also would in todays era at least have a chance to sort his inner demons out with the sporting chance clinic & the PFA.You only have to see the news over the weekend todays ex-pro's at least have a chance then it really was a different time for players who had careers cut short. - Post No. 34203

Mikey59  14:16pm 5th Feb 2013

Great article and thanks for reminding me so vividly of those great nights against Juve. I remember the 1-1 at Highbury well and on our way home my mates and I all felt we had no chance in the return fixture. It was as big an ask as Liverpool '89 to me. Look forward to the book. - Post No. 34204

johnnyhawleyloovinggooner  14:38pm 5th Feb 2013

i remember the night well . my dad got a new sound system with a top notch radio. it was as bad a signal as i everhad. it went in and out and it/I missed the goal. when it came back we were one nil up. it was a very long 2 mins. i was supposed to have a 5000 word eassy ready for the next day, but was more put out that the only match i saw on tv in that cup run was the one we lost.there (was short high lights that night on bbc1) every other club seemed to be picked but us. it was the begining of the end that cup final,for a long time. there were times when i thought we would never won anything again. always felt very sorry for the lad - Post No. 34205

kilkenny cat  14:47pm 5th Feb 2013

Remember a goal against scum utd around 81 or 82. Like a lot of promising players of that era,they cpuldn,t match the legacy,of Brady and Stapleton. That includes the current Reading manager. - Post No. 34206

Dominic  15:18pm 5th Feb 2013

I remember the match well. I was putting in a payroll system in the Beleek pottery and headed back to Belfast at 9pm. In the car listening to the match I became more certain it was going to finish 0 - 0 and we would go out. When Vaessen scored I had to stop the car in the middle of nowhere and dance a little jig. Then it was straight back into the car and zoom back to the Parador to watch the highlights. - Post No. 34207

Bermondsey Paul  15:35pm 5th Feb 2013

Was at both games,travelling out to Turin from Victoria by TransAlpino. That was mode of transport to many European destinations back in the day, along with around 30 others.Most of us around 18-20 years old along with a few known faces from the North Bank and Clock End. I personally knew Paul quite well, fellow Bermondsey Boy, back in the day when you could find the pro footballers in your local pub. Great memories and stories from those days. Going back to that night in Turin, to all the Arsenal fans who were there no one could forget that night, especially at the end with the battles on the terraces and the plain clothed Italian Police with pistols drawn. Respect to Dino,Fuzzy Mick, George the Greek,Tiger and all the others who were there. God Bless Paul, never to be forgotten - Post No. 34208

KrakowJosh  16:35pm 5th Feb 2013

Spurs fan. Moving piece, I look forward to reading the rest. - Post No. 34210

Guy in Jersey  16:42pm 5th Feb 2013

I remember the Juventus match so well. Too young to travel, I was in my bedroom listening on the radio while trying (and failing) to do my homework. I remember turning the radio off with about five minutes to go and then praying for a goal (it had worked the previous year when Willie Young scored against Hajduk Split). When I turned it back on, something had obviously happened, but it took me about 30 seconds to figure out who had scored. The joys of radio! And precious memories of a time when success was never taken for granted and Arsenal, like most other teams, usually let you down. - Post No. 34211

maguiresbridge gooner  18:17pm 5th Feb 2013

Sad he had to retire at such a young age with it all ahead of him,and become a true legend (that's if he isn't already)especially after the impact he made against juve,i'm sure the same injury isn't deemed serious today.It's also sad that he has been forgotten and we'll never know what problems he had after having to quit,(or maybe we will in the next section) and no doubt in this day and age there would be more help for such a player, like we seen with another one of our Pauls who had his own problems.On a brighter note can you imagine the scandal it would cause to day if some of the players were found driving round the hotel on a tractor naked. - Post No. 34212

Robert Exley  18:24pm 5th Feb 2013

Interesting article. Looking forward to the other two pieces. I've been researching '79-80 quite a bit recently so this has obviously taken my interest - Post No. 34213

Les Crang  18:57pm 5th Feb 2013

Really appreciate the comments. I'd love to make it into a book, and put something into a Vaessen fund of some sort. Vaessens story is truly sad, especially for his family. I'd love to talk to them. As As for Kilkenny cat, Brian Mcdermott agreed to be interviewed about Paul, so I really hope they stay up. Also, big thanks to Kevin for the editing of the article and the comments. Its nice that Paul's remembered. - Post No. 34215

Roy  21:13pm 5th Feb 2013

Still have vivid memories of that season. I was 16 and attended all but a handful of games both home and away,though I didn't travel to Turin due to a disagreement over funds with my parents as I remember. I too was ensconced in my bedroom with my " ultra group stereo " radio/record player which I inherited after my Dad upgraded downstairs. The reception wasn't that brilliant but it didn't seem that important as I was kneeling beside the bed praying for a miracle.When Vaessen scored, it did indeed take about 30 seconds to sink in and I went ballistic prompting Mum to rush upstairs thinking something dreadful had happened. Afterwards it was a quick dash to the local for a couple of pints wearing an official club v-neck sweater purchased from the Clock End store earlier in the season. I also recall being right behind the goal in the North Bank against Brighton when Vaessens thumping downward header on the run hit the net. If there had been no net, I could have headed it back ! It was a crushing disappointment to lose both cup finals but the truth was that the players were out on their feet probably caused by the FA Cup semi final marathon with Liverpool. What a lot of people forget about that season is that due to the fixture pile up we still had two league games to play after the cup finals,away to both Wolves and Boro where two wins would have brought qualification for the next seasons Eufa Cup. Incredibly the team picked themselves up off the canvas to beat Wolves 2-1, but a 70th game of the season just a couple of days later was too much and Boro won 5-0, thus Ipswich qualified instead and of course won the damn thing ! It was tragic what happened to Paul and I remember reading about it at the time.Still, great piece Les and some good memories,look forward to next installment. And yes Ron - couldn't agree more about the kit ! - Post No. 34216

Carlos  21:22pm 5th Feb 2013

Blimey, what a great read, thanks for posting this, look forward to the next installments. As I remember the radio commentator was as surprised as anyone that Arsenal had managed to score. - Post No. 34217

Joe S.  22:22pm 5th Feb 2013

Thanks for the trip, I was in England for the end of that season and stayed on during the next Brady- less season. it was a time when Arsenal had it in their power to build on something to really threaten the likes of Liverpool and Forrest.Regarding Paul Vaessen, he was a player who escaped the radar which is probably the story of his life. With a bit of luck and some help he could have become more than a distant memory.As to that Juventus game I was listening to it on the radio in Italy with an Italian commentary where they could make even the drabbest 0-0 result sound like Barcellona was playing.The commentator's pronouncing of Vaessen's name after his goal sounded like the heralding of a footballing great. It's a shame about the Italian mind set at that time. All their players mentioned above could really play even Gentile. However managed by the cynical Trappatoni they were often overly negative and more often than not their own worst enemies. As to Paul Vaseen we can only speculate that today Arsenal would have looked after him better both with his injury, alla Diabi and also with assistence regarding his personal demons, see Roberts and Mellor. - Post No. 34219

Gary Gooner  23:01pm 5th Feb 2013

I was in Turin the night he scored that goal, in the stadium and in dreamland. I also got the same plane as the players home, it was party time at 35000 ft :) such a shame what unfolded in Paul's life after that glorious night - Post No. 34220

Moscow Gooner  12:15pm 6th Feb 2013

Great memories: didn't make it to the Turin game but the Highbury game was epic: best atmosphere I ever experienced there, with Willie's equaliser. Also remember the semi versus Liverpool at Coventry - being behind the goal when Talbot scored the decisive goal. Seemed like the same week - but clearly wasn't! That season - so close to glory, yet so far away finally - surely deserves a book in its own right? With Paul V's story taking pride of place. - Post No. 34227

!!  12:18pm 6th Feb 2013

I listened to the game whilst at sea with the Royal Navy and the reception was decent on the World Service frequency. I was running around the radio room of my ship like a berserker when Paul scored. It made it even more pleasurable that my boss was a Spurs fan! I managed to watch both Cup Finals alongside in Gibraltar and took plenty of stick for us losing both! - Post No. 34228

Ramgun  14:00pm 6th Feb 2013

Vaessen's goal was originally stated to be an own-goal on the radio. When they corrected the error it was the first time I found out that Vaessen was on the pitch! The team had been shattered by SIX semi-finals in three weeks (four against Liverpool and two against Juventus) and were hardly able to raise a gallop in the FA Cup Final and slogged through 120 minutes on the following Wednesday at the crumbling Heysel where so many poor people lost their lives five years later when, incredibly, UEFA were still awarding finals to that stadium. I remember my shock and sadness when I heard of Paul Vaessen's death. I had watched him in the youth team and the Reserves many times. Thank you for writing about his short and tragic life. - Post No. 34237

allen  14:51pm 6th Feb 2013

An enjoyable read and having been at the game can testify to the appalling violence after the game,a hundred or so arsenal fans being pelted with flattened drinks cans ,luckily we were on the upper tier and managed to fight off overwhelming numbers of italian thugs until a plain clothes policeman pulled his gun and ushered us down a back stairway. As for the game it was dull,on a threadbare pitch, with Juve never trying to win the game their thinking was that they had already won the tie. Paul's goal will always be in my top ten for the memories and times it invokes. - Post No. 34238

Issue #269 - Out Now!

Gooner Editorial

16th February 2018

Frozen North Provides Relief For Arsenal

Rare comfortable away win for Gunners v Ostersunds