20141016

Stuck in a Moment: tragic story of Arsenal star Paul Vaessen brilliantly told in new biography

Football is not short of poignant tales of players struck down by injury in their prime, potential unfulfilled, dreams left slowly to evaporate.  Yet it is difficult to imagine one quite so desperately sad as the story of Paul Vaessen, which is retold with great feeling and skill by Stewart Taylor in a brilliant biography.

In a career that comprised only 39 first-team appearances, Vaessen scored nine goals for Arsenal, but one of them ensured him a permanent place in the club's history, when he came on as substitute in a European Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final against Juventus in Turin and scored the goal, with two minutes remaining, that put Arsenal into the final, 2-1 on aggregate.  It was the first time the Italian team had lost at home to a British opponent.  Vaessen was an 18-year-old forward suddenly with the world at his feet.

Scarcely two years later, after three operations, a knee ligament injured suffered in a north London derby forced him to retire, not yet 21.   It was a crippling blow in more than one sense.  He would always have physical pain but it was the mental anguish that took its toll.  Feeling abandoned and forgotten, he turned to drugs and alcohol, slipping into a life of petty crime and addiction that destroyed his life and the lives of people around him.

He survived a stabbing in 1985, knifed in a side street off the Old Kent Road.  He lost a considerable amount of blood and doctors had to restart his heart twice on the operating table, yet he was so addicted he walked out of the hospital, still attached to a drip, a catheter and a colostomy bag, in search of another fix.  In the hospital, he worked out how he could bypass the pump controlling the hourly dose of morphine he was receiving for pain and give himself a six-hour hit in one go.

Afterwards, though he was rarely off drugs for long, he spent seven years with his girlfriend, Debbie, with whom he had a son.  They married, but eventually she left him and his life spiralled steadily downwards, his addiction regularly landing him in court because of the crimes he committed in order to fund it.  He moved to Hampshire, finding work as a paint sprayer and meeting another girl, Sally, with whom he had another son, but that relationship collapsed as well.  He had hoped to begin a new career as a physiotherapist but his plan to go to college never happened.  At around the same time, he had to give up work because of the pain from his knee and if ever he needed an excuse to numb himself with drugs and alcohol he felt he had one then.

He moved again, to stay with his brother, Leon, in Bristol.  It was there, in August 2001, he was found dead in the bathroom of the house they shared, the victim of an accidental overdose, aged only 39.

It was 21 years since the most famous night of his life, the one that would forever be his legacy, the moment from which he would never escape.  Had he lived, it would doubtless have been talked about today, on what would have been his 53rd birthday.

The author, who has been writing, mainly about Arsenal, since the mid-90s, spent five years in research, spending much time with Paul Vaessen's mother, Maureen, whose courage and resilience shines through and without whose co-operation the story would not have been complete.  Other family members confided in him too, as did many of Paul's friends as well as former team-mates and coaches.  Tony Adams, who battled his own addictions, provided a foreword as heartfelt as any you could read.

Taylor handles their input, some of it deeply personal and harrowing, with considerable sensitivity and he can be proud of the end result.  Stuck in a Moment: The Ballad of Paul Vaessen has been longlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2014.

Buy Stuck in a Moment: The Ballad of Paul Vaessen from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.

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