The Paul Vaessen Story Part 3

By Les Crang

Life after football

'There are a lot of young kids out there who are doing drugs and feel they have lost all hope,' he said in 1994. 'I know, because I have lived through the same thing. I'm telling my story to show there is a way out.' Paul Vaessen, News of the World, 1994.

Happier Times – Signing autographs for Arsenal fans

Paul Vaessen’s retirement meant an unimaginable transformation for a 21-year-old. It meant not having the adulation from 40,000 players (actually, by the early 1980s, 18,000 was more common, and with Peter Nicholas in midfield I know why). It meant not having something to get up for. It meant no money. In the 1980s, players were relatively moderately paid, one journalist saying that a footballer of Vaessen's standing in the 1980s would have earned around £150 a week. In that era, the power belonged to the club and not the player.

Vaessen, in an interview with the News of the World, said of his being let go of by Arsenal ‘I was just 21, and, when the doors of Highbury shut behind me, I had no idea what to do....I was on the scrap heap.’

In many ways, the way players were treated was not uncommon at Arsenal or other English clubs. A famous instance of Arsenal’s lack of consideration to former players is the Eddie Hapgood case. Hapgood was Arsenal’s 1930s captain and the club’s most-capped player at one time. He’s even on the Emirates Wall of Heroes around the Stadium. Arsenal fail to mention a story Brian Glanville recites - ‘In 1969 there appeared a book called `Arsenal from the Heart' by Bob Wall, who had crawled his way up from being Chapman's office boy to chief executive. The book alleged that, at the end of the War, Hapgood and the former right-half and future Gunners' Manager "Gentleman" Jack Crayston had demanded benefit payments, been refused and had appealed unsuccessfully to the Football League. Then, when Arsenal, in better financial shape, had offered them the money, they had turned it down.

‘Wall should have smelled a rat immediately. Such benefit payments, some £750 for each five years of service, were purely optional and at the clubs' discretion. As luck had it, I was then due to go down to Weymouth in South West England to interview Eddie for a television programme I was making for the BBC series, `One Pair Of Eyes'. He was then in charge of a hostel for apprentices of the Atomic Agency. When I told him this tale he was horrified, and produced a folder of correspondence with Arsenal. Having lost his last managerial job at little Bath City, he had written to Arsenal asking for help, as he had never had a benefit. They sent him £30!’

It’s a rather sad indictment of the club.

The Times reported ‘between the age of 19 and 21, Vaessen was operated on three times, unsuccessfully, for a damaged cruciate ligament. Arthritis, the doctors told him, had already set in, and he knew that arthritis had crippled his father's career as a professional at Millwall.’

After leaving the club Vaessen worked as a builder and as a postman. Whilst working in the post office, one ex-colleague commented ‘I listened to the game on Radio London in a pub called the White Hart (great name, eh?). The reception was terrible and I don’t think I knew who scored the goal until about two in the morning, but that was a good night-shift in the post office at the KEB. Ten years later, Vaessen was working with us. No wonder he was pissed off.’

Vaessen had tried marijuana when he was 13 years old, and during his injury lay-off, one article states ‘The pain wasn't, however, physical or emotional, and when a friend offered Vaessen some marijuana to relieve his suffering he accepted.’

Don Howe, assistant coach at the time, suspected something, saying in an interview 'To be honest, I don't know why. I don't think anybody knew. It's typical, but the players knew more about the boy than we did, how he was outside the game.' Arsenal physio, Gary Lewin, a youth-team goalkeeper at the time and friend of Vaessen’s during his playing-time, said 'My memory of him was that he was quite outward-going, but with professional footballers sometimes you don't really know what's going on with them. They can be like that to cover up any problems they might have in the football world. At that age you don't really get to know people well.'

Having tried marijuana, and with his career ended, Vaessen started going around with friends who introduced to him the world of heroin. Within eighteen months of leaving Arsenal, Vaessen had lost what money he had, his wife, his son and even his parents, who saw their son regularly 'drugged up to the eyeballs' on his £125 per day habit. To feed his habit, Paul resorted to a life of crime - shoplifting, mugging and theft. In 1985, on the Old Kent Road Vaessen was stabbed six times while trying to score heroin. The Guardian (22/10/94) explained what happened.

‘Vaessen was stabbed three times in a London street, the victim of a drug feud. Apparently, he had been the go-between handing a ‘friend's’ £200 to a dealer who took the money and never came back with the goods. "I was a fool," Vaessen told me. "I thought the smack would cheer me up, but nothing is worse than being hooked on heroin."’ Rushed to Guys Hospital, Vaessen needed 40 pints of blood while his heart stopped twice after. It was a lucky escape.

While at Guys, Vaessen meet Lewin, who was training to be a physio there after his own career had ended through injury. Lewin said ‘I bumped into him on the ward, funnily enough. Then I lost track of him... I didn't like to ask too much.' After four days, Paul left hospital when he should have been there for months, recuperating. The desire for drugs was that strong. His mother said a few months later ‘He's physically fit again, but it worries me to death that he can't find his level and his meaning in life. He never cared for nothing more than his football.’ It seemed his new care was only his habit for drugs.

After such a near-death experience, Paul tried to pull his life around, going to detox for seven weeks in Bexleyheath. Afterwards, he moved to Andover, meeting Sally Tinkler, who already had a young daughter. After living together for a year, they moved to Farnborough to be near her family. Paul found work as a paint-sprayer, had a son (called Jack) and found Jesus. Vaessen then planned to follow in Gary Lewin’s footsteps and become a physiotherapist.

Unfortunately, the plan fell through, while Paul’s knee also meant he had to quit working. As his life disintegrated, he reverted to his old habit of drugs. His relationship with Sally and the children also disintegrated, with Paul’s step-daughter having to ring her grandmother saying, 'Daddy is slumped over the banister with a needle in his arm.' The girl’s grandmother went round to the house and took the children away.

Finally, Paul was evicted from the house, living briefly in Bristol before returning to Farnborough with his drug habit following close behind. In 1998, Vaessen was arrested for stealing ladies’ tights from Asda. Police found him in the toilet, talking to himself. Having hit out at the arresting officer when he fell on his bad leg, he was charged with assault.

At the trial, 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. His whole life was turned upside down and he was totally desperate. In those days there was no counselling or after-playing help and he was told by Arsenal, "Goodbye and good luck".'

Vaessen was sentenced to 90 days, and then lived with his brother in Bristol. On 8th August, 2001, Paul was found dead by a friend, Jason Murphy. He was aged just 39. The Coroner, the Bristol Observer noted, said that the autopsy had ‘revealed high levels of drugs in Mr Vaessen's blood.’ Don Howe said on learning of his passing 'There are so many things out there that can alter a footballer's career. What they need is one little bit of help. The clubs have to be very aware of that.'

Tony Adams, a man with his own inner demons said after Vaessen’s passing, 'It's very sad but that is the illness of addiction for you. This is what can happen and people should realise just how serious it is. When it goes wrong for them, footballers can get forgotten and feel very isolated so they don't know where to turn. Some can use drugs or drink. I hope the kind of work I'm doing with my charity (The Sporting Chance Clinic) will mean that people like Paul Vaessen will know where to turn in the future.'

For me, Vaessen’s passing is sad on many levels. In one way, it’s that he’s rarely remembered by the club (wouldn’t it be nice if he was on the Emirates wall?). Also, it’s that sad and nice Vaessen loved Arsenal, even after retiring and on drugs. Teenagers would have a kick around with him saying ‘his eyes used to light up when he talked about Arsenal’. It’s also sad the way he was treated by the fans themselves, especially in the Winterslag game. Years later he remained philosophical about the Highbury crowd, saying in an interview with Jon Spurling, ‘Some blokes are born to play football. I’m not simply referring to their talent - I’m also talking about mental toughness. As you can see (at this he lifted his shaking hands - a sure sign of drug addiction) I’ve never been the strongest of people. It was very strange the thing with the crowd.

‘When I first came into the team, and was understudy to Frank Stapleton, the crowd was great with me. There was no real pressure on my shoulders. My goals in Turin and the header against Spurs bought me time with them. In my mind, after my winner against Juventus, I thought I’d made it. All the press started to make a fuss of me, and with hindsight, I took my eye off the ball, so to speak.

‘When I needed to take the next step, and become a first-team regular, things changed. The relationship changes ever so slightly. You’re no longer a boy learning his trade, you’re expected to deliver. And part of being a first-team regular is learning to cope with terrace complaints. The problem was that the Arsenal crowd of that time was pretty unsettled. Many were pissed off that Liam and Frank had gone......their patience with me had vanished.

‘The night of the Winterslag game, I have to say that at the time it was a complete and utter humiliation. What they didn’t know was that my knee injury - which ended my career a year later - was already restricting my movement on the field. It was also a pretty poorly-kept secret that I’d cut my wrist the Christmas before....I was very bitter at what happened with supporters. Some of the lads at the club like Kenny Sansom were great, and gave me some cash when I packed up.

Having graduated from the youth team, I never made much money from my career. I finished up with nothing - at only 23. But I hated Arsenal fans for a long time. I was very bitter that they could turn on one of their own like they did with me......14 years on, I don’t bear a grudge any more. Fans pay their money, and are entitled to their say. For me to remain bitter for ever about the Winterslag match is ludicrous really. Now I try and focus on the early days, when the crowd cheered me. The thing is, it’s hard to remember back to those days’.

So Paul Vaessen, coming on in Juventus and scoring at the back post, you’ll always be remembered. A true Arsenal legend.

This series will conclude tomorrow with interviews remembering Paul with Terry Neill and Brian McDermott

7th February 2013 09:00:00


Comments and Reaction

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Guy in Jersey  10:06am 7th Feb 2013

Paul's is a terribly sad story, and a salutary one, but there are hundreds of young professionals each year who have their dreams dashed through rejection or injury - and not all of them have a support network to fall back on. Look at Ryan Garry. He could've been special, and with any luck would've been set up for life, but his career was destroyed by injury. Pre-Wenger, I also recall a young central defender at Arsenal who excelled at every level, but was let go at 18 because it was felt he lacked pace. Anyone remember his name? - Post No. 34255

Dan h  11:31am 7th Feb 2013

Where football has changed for the better there is programmes for players to learn other skills there wasn't in the 70's & 80's.The turnover of young players at the highest level should open any youngsters eyes on the chance of making it at a big club.Forget all those that are let go at youth level the percentage of first year pro's that make it is minimal.The dream to sign for a big club more often than not turns into disappointment.You are one of many you also compete against the most promising players scouted all over the world.For any parent out there with a promising son think very carefully about training/signing with a big PL club you are honestly better off with a championship or lower level if you are good enough you will come through.Paul Vaessen was a very sad story once again thanks for sharing it with us Les. - Post No. 34256

Robert Exley  12:47pm 7th Feb 2013

A great piece. I hope you do progress to turn it into a book because it will certainly be worth a read - Post No. 34257

Big Andy  13:00pm 7th Feb 2013

Sad story. I remember watching Paul as a young boy standing on the North Bank. Strange time to recount this sad tale, as another Paul - the best English player in the last 30 years - is at his lowest point fighting alcohol addiction. Good luck to Gazza. - Post No. 34258

les crang  13:27pm 7th Feb 2013

Guy in Jersey In response. I know there are plenty of players who have dreadful stories aka Ryan Barry, but I feel Vaessens struck more resonance. A european semi final cup winning scorer at 18. London born? Could you see that happening now? As Arsenal fans, we've had some bad years as a team, but Vaessen and Mickey thomas goals at the beginning and end of the 80's are the highlights of a dark period. Perhap I might interview Ryan Garry? I'd also like to wish gazza. 1990 semi-final was a fantastic game. - Post No. 34260

maguiresbridge gooner  14:30pm 7th Feb 2013

Sad story indeed, there's no doubt if it happened today the help and support would be there, just as it was with TA and PM, with the likes of TA sporting chance clinic.It certainly would be nice to see some recognition inside or outside the ground for the huge contribution he made to arsenal in his short career. - Post No. 34261

Dan h  14:42pm 7th Feb 2013

Les & Guy in Jersey there are many hard luck stories.In Vaessen's case how can you resonate going from a hero at 18 to on the scrapheap at 21?You have to have something to fall back on even the most successful players find it hard to cope Gazza being the most recent case.Best,Merson,Adams & Paul McGrath at least were given help.The PFA at least recognise this it shows for all that can't cope with the end of a fledgling career it also affects the high profile players.Education is such a vital tool & clubs do now try to prepare players for what can go right dealing with media etc & also wrong being released.Football gets a lot wrong but in this field they do at least offer courses.For Vaessen it is a story that should be told to all young players. - Post No. 34262

les crang  15:00pm 7th Feb 2013

Dan H response. Sorry, I in know way meant to sound flippant in my comments. I meant I found the story interesting. Agreed, the PFA and sporting chance. maguiresbridge gooner I have actually tried to look into this, especially in the Museum, but with little success. Unfortunately - Post No. 34263

Guy in Jersey  16:13pm 7th Feb 2013

Hi Les. I was already familiar with Paul's story, but it's one that's worth repeating, especially as it's more tragic than most. However, there must be other players at other clubs who, having had a brief taste of the big time, then had a successful career snatched away from them. Gary Shaw at Villa comes to mind, although he struggled on for a number of years. However, while both he and Ryan G can possibly look back with regret at what might have been, they didn't go down the dark road that Paul Vaessen did and I certainly didn't mean to disrespect your tribute to him by flagging up that he wasn't an isolated case. Good luck with the book. - Post No. 34265

Ron  16:51pm 7th Feb 2013

Without any disrespect to PV (few if any of us will ever begin to understand his feelings)his plight is tragic indeed. However, we tend to go dewy eyed when its a footballer who loses his career and livelihood ie we feel attached and see it as a great pity as result of our love for football and what we see as the past glories they often experience and shared with us as fans.Sadly, the reality is that hardly anybody gets close to where even he got to. Most fail or are rejected. As much as us fans slake off the Diabys and Dennilsons of the game, they did well to get to the top and had something special once, that was recognised by top coaches. Others had speacial talents like PV and didnt get even to their level. The grim truth is also that there are many in other professions who for whatever reason fall by the wayside but dont fall into the same abyss as PV did. Its all dow to the person concerned. Many addicts will go and succumb to the addiction that grips them anyway. Best for istance would perhaps have been a hopeless drunk had he have done an ordinary job of work? Its easy to say that injury or failing to hit footies heights are the sole reason for such as PV decline to his sad demise. It was maybe a journey he was destined to take anyway?. Who knows. Yes, the 'help' wasnt there perhaps, but its there in the modern game ie Adams clinics etc etc but there will always be lots of PV s stories im afraid. Some people self destruct. Others dont. - Post No. 34266

les crang  17:05pm 7th Feb 2013

Guy in Jersey no worries mate. I thought I should say why i wrote it. I think Dan H was correct in saying how could I feel resonance. You gotta walk in a mans shoes etc is true. I'm just happy people read the article and I can't say enjoyed, but found it 'insightful'? As for the book, someone is already doing it and maybe out this year i heard yesterday. Shame, but i look forward to annoying the misses with what she calls 'another arsenal book' - Post No. 34267

Ramgun  17:34pm 7th Feb 2013

Thank you for a terrific, if difficult, read. I, unfortunately, remember the game against Winterslag very well. I recall plenty of anti-Terry Neill stuff from the crowd and lots of general moaning (and before anyone insults the people who turned up that night, they had plenty to complain about) but the barracking of Paul Vaessen was nowhere near Eboue against Wigan standards for instance. I suppose that as a young player Vaessen felt particularly vulnerable. The club do not come out of this well. I wonder if the attitude that Arsenal had towards Vaessen was the norm for all clubs at that time? By the way, I detested the hard-cases who peopled the middle of the North Bank for years due to their totally unfair treatment of Jon Sammels which, to this day, makes me angry. Once again, thank you for writing about Paul Vaessen. - Post No. 34269

Dan h  18:30pm 7th Feb 2013

Excellent series of articles Les congratulations i hope whoever writes the book contacts yourself as you have something to add.For all us older gooners you certainly told a story that was needed to be recounted.Hope to see some other articles. - Post No. 34271

exiled&dangerous  19:17pm 7th Feb 2013

A very moving series of articles, especially with this week's headlines about a star player from the early 90s. I really hope you are able to turn this into a book, and that the book is passed on by the PFA to all young players coming into the game wth their agents...... - Post No. 34272

Justin Clarke  20:13pm 7th Feb 2013

Such a sad story. Im just too young to remember him, I didnt start going to the Arsenal until October 1982. Its terrible reading this, thinking about how much players get paid nowadays and get everything on a plate for them... - Post No. 34273

les crang  22:34pm 7th Feb 2013

in response to ron. I agree with you to some degree, but as fans when we watch a game with shirts not bearing our name? How mad is that? I am a fan, and i never meet paul, but i just wanted to tell Pauls story. And i hope you enjoyed it. - Post No. 34275

Mandy Dodd  23:30pm 7th Feb 2013

Tragic. Just shows how valuable the work tony Adams and others have been doing, also a cautionary tale for those who choose give our players hell.....this guy had cut his wrists and remained bitter over treatment from some of out fans. Yes, some who buy tickets and others who do not ....they say they have a right to voice displeasure, but some people, including footballers are vulnerable. It is clear those who gave Paul V such a hard time were less than helpful over the problems he suffered. - Post No. 34277

les crang  9:07am 8th Feb 2013

Ron, what i was trying to say, was I felt Vaessen didn't have the chance of PFA or Sporting chance. If he'd have that, it might or it might not have helped. - Post No. 34279

Ron  10:35am 8th Feb 2013

I thought your posts re Paul V were excellent mate. Top class. Everthing that you say is very poignant.Its been a really good read and i think everybody has enjoyed your series. I sure did. - Post No. 34281

Leedsgooner1  12:11pm 8th Feb 2013

Excellent piece, i am old enough to remember Paul & i was at that Winterslag game. Such a shame.. - Post No. 34284

Elephant and Castle  17:09pm 8th Feb 2013

Great piece Les. The care and sincerity with which you've written it drips off the screen. The idea of a forgotten heroes spot in the museum's definitely worth a go. 1979-80 was mental. I think at some point that season we played 4 games in 8 days, including games against Spurs and Juventus. After we lost both cup finals, the club and the fans finished on auto-pilot. Two days after the second final, we played at Molineux (a Friday night!). Somehow we picked ourselves up and won but on the Monday, at Middlesbrough, once we conceded, there was just no way back. I remember feeling knackered on the train home, having just got back from Brussels and missing the Wolves game. The players must have been really shattered. Battered and potless. Just as well the season was over. There was nothing left in the tank. - Post No. 34303

Sean Spillane, Corcaigh, Ireland  22:37pm 8th Feb 2013

A really enjoyable if poignant trilogy of an former Gunner. May Paul Vaessen Rest in Peace. I remember hearing Vaessen score that glorious headed winner against the mighty Juventus in their own back yard. My brother Tim (sadly dead now) and I, as young teenage Gooners were listening intently and nervously to the radio commentary and going absolutely mental celebrating and I still get a glowing feeling of the good memories of that night. Thanks to all concerned for highlighting the rise, fall and ultimate tragedy of a former Gunner. - Post No. 34308

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