The Ballad of Arsenal’s Paul Vaessen: The most affecting piece of football writing in 2014

By Tom Simmonds.

In my review of 2014’s best football books, I deliberately made one glaring omission. While its heavy subject matter formed part of my reasoning, my real reason was realising that I couldn’t possibly do the individual on whom it centres justice in a short synopsis. Stewart Taylor’s Stuck in a Moment: The Ballad of Paul Vaessen, was possibly the most affecting piece of football writing to emerge in 2014, and it deserves its own stage.

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The footballer being the central figure in their own tragic narratives was a dam breached by Ronald Reng in his brilliant biography of Robert Enke, A Life Too Short.  Stewart Taylor adopts this format in his study of Vaessen – records of whom were firmly in the ether.

This was a man who played 32 professional games in an era before saturation football coverage made it less difficult to forget fleeting careers. Vaessen’s career was cruelly truncated by a hideous knee injury at the age of just 20 in 1982. However, as Taylor unfolds his narrative, shaped by interviews with those closest to Vaessen at various points throughout his life, this was the beginning of a tragic decline that was the complete opposite of the trajectory Vaessen had enjoyed, up to that point.

Always the star of his Bermondsey neighbourhood, as a young man on account of his footballing ability, Vaessen briefly moved that fame onto another level on St George’s Day, 1980.

As a substitute so unheralded – even some of the English journalists present didn’t know who he was. He was to score the winning goal in the 1980 Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final second-leg, against a Juventus team comprising Zoff, Gentile, Bettega et al, in Turin. Taylor’s revelation that the first half of this game was never recorded, an unthinkable scenario for a European semi-final nowadays, serves as a further reminder of how precarious the posterity of Vaessen’s professional apogee remains.

It started to go wrong for Vaessen at an alarming rate after that goal. The career-ending knee injury was sustained in a reserve game in January 1981. The remainder of his career was pock-marked by abortive comeback attempts. Taylor gives great attention to a European tie against Winterslag of Belgium in November 1981 where the ‘North Bank turned’ viciously on the man who had put them into a major final 19 months prior – to illustrate just how briefly Vaessen flew close to the sun.

Taylor’s focus in the book’s second half is on the decline that led to Vaessen dying of a heroin overdose at 39 in 2001. His spare, non-judgemental presentation of the accounts of those with him during his post-football travails makes harrowing reading. Accounts of the lack of support he received once out of football; his almost dying after being stabbed in 1985 and his drug use, through which he tried to maintain a façade of respectability through vanity and easy charm, are especially so. Taylor, and those who really knew Vaessen, are at pains to point out this charm always flickered in him, even towards his end.

Taylor achieves much in this deeply moving tale. His ‘warts-and-all’ presentation of Vaessen is enabled by the openness of those who spoke so frankly to him. It is testament to Taylor’s approach that he was able to elicit such material from such a wide range of sources. The dignity of Paul Vaessen’s parents, Maureen and Leon and younger brother Lee – whose own struggles are superbly documented as a subplot to the main subject – shines through. It is through these three that you get a sense of the man who rose at the back post to meet Graham Rix’s cross that night in Turin. It is through Maureen, Leon and Lee that Taylor is able to ultimately tell a tale of love, and how it can still endure despite its many complicating factors. It is a must-read for anybody who has an interest in people, let alone football.

Have you read Stuck in a Moment?

Arsenal fans: Do you or your family remember Paul Vaessen as a player?

3 Comments on The Ballad of Arsenal’s Paul Vaessen: The most affecting piece of football writing in 2014

  1. I do, but he was just a kid when he played for The Arsenal -that never made it down to a horrific leg injury.However, this ode is quite ridiculous in its hushed adoration. Remove the bombastic editorial style and you have….

    Average junior player scores important goal, then goes back to being average before bad knee injury ends career and personal life spirals down to poor life choices.

    No disrespect to the poor chaps ill fated end- I am more commenting on this bizarre review

    • All I can say Iain is that you clearly haven’t read the book! It’s an awesome piece of writing which is the point Tom is making.

  2. I can strongly recommend the book. i was quite young when Vaessen played and the book reminded me of things and taught me things. Great read, well written and well worth the time and investment.

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