Date: 5th February 2010 at 2:07pm
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As football fans, it`s all too easy to think that we are the only ones consumed by the game, that we are the only ones that feel its lethal and addictive cocktail of pain and dejection. We are all guilty of thinking that the players are mere conduits of our emotional retardation. Nick Hornby intelligently observed that being a football supporter is an essentially selfish and self indulgent pass time. When the team performs badly, as Arsenal did on Sunday, we take it as a personal affront. How dare the players make us the subject of ridicule and mockery when we return to our places of work on Monday morning. Do they not realise just how miserable they have made our weekend? What we don`t tend to consider are the feelings of the players themselves. Whilst it`s undeniably true that most players don`t steadfastly tie their colours to the mast of one team for their whole lives, desperately feeding off its glory, its misery and its every machination, they still feel an undeniable and consuming passion for the game. You could argue more so than we do. They have such a devotion to the game that they actually got up off their arses and made it their life`s work. Whilst most of us spent our teenage years smoking cheap fags, downing cheap cider in rain swept inner city parks, these guys were trying to find a dim streetlight somewhere to kick a ball about in. Whilst we feast on beer, lard and curry sandwiches on Friday nights, these guys are tucked up in bed in hotel rooms (not all of them spend the night before matches spit roasting their team mate`s missus) preparing for matches. It`s easy for us to believe that defeat doesn`t sting them and that they`re only in it for the money- as if these players made entrepreneurial decisions as teenagers that- “Football`s awash with cash, maybe that`s a good market?” It`s worth remembering that footballers have an appetite for the game too, sometimes that appetite can be so consuming that it destroys them. Which leads me onto the tragic case of Paul Vaessen.

“Eat Football, Sleep Football, Drink Football” so the mid 90s slogan of a gargantuan multi conglomerate ran. The ident suggests that as football supporters, we consume football. But what happens when the game consumes you? Paul Vaessen was a young Arsenal Academy product, born to a footballer father, who reached the absolute pinnacle of the game whilst still a teenager. He would die a lonely, painfully thin drug addict, his body reeling with a mixture of intoxicants before his 40th birthday. Vaessen was born in Bermondsey in 1962, his father Leon played for Millwall. The Vaessen`s were a rather typical, working class family in South London`s deprived district of Bermondsey. Though Vaessen`s family and regional ties were very much with Millwall, Vaessen joined Arsenal in 1978 as an apprentice. He was a striker of great promise and almost immediately commanded regular Reserve team football despite his youth. He impressed instantly too, so much so that he was handed his debut on 27 September, 1978 in a UEFA Cup Tie with Lokomotiv Leipzig. He was still 19 days short of his 17th birthday. For much of the 1978-79 and 1979-80 seasons, Vaessen was the young back up to Arsenal`s established strike force of Alan Sunderland and Frank Stapleton. He waited patiently for his chance, schooling himself in training under the tutelage of Arsenal`s established and experienced strike force. He amassed 5 goals in 13 appearances in the 1978-79 season, a very respectable ratio for an 17 year old. In that sense, his modern day equivalent would probably have been Nicklas Bendtner. Still learning his trade and considered a young back up, but with the undoubted potential to lead the Arsenal line in the coming years. Few at the club doubted that that would happen.

Vaessen plugged away quietly awaiting his chance. In April 1980, he would shuffle into the spotlight with one of the most famous goals in Arsenal`s illustrious history. Arsenal travelled to Turin for a Cup Winners Cup Semi Final 2nd Leg with Juventus. The 1st Leg had ended in a 1-1 draw at Highbury, giving Juventus a narrow away goals advantage. The Gunners went to Stadio Communale as massive underdogs. Juve had not lost a home European tie to a British side. For Arsenal to go through, they were going to have to make history. Despite the pre match predictions pontificating on the size of Juve`s victory more than over the actual result itself, Arsenal held Juve gamely for 75 minutes with an expert defensive display, frustrating their hosts into creating a poverty of chances. However, Arsenal had not exactly created many of their own either. So with fifteen minutes to play, Terry Neill sent on Vaessen. On 81 minutes, Arsenal broke forward in a rare attack, Graham Rix wriggled to the by line and executed a delicate cross to the back post. The legendary Dino Zoff came to collect, but as he stretched every sinew to meet it, the ball dropped inches over his arm to the back post, where 18 year old Vaessen met the ball with a close range header. It was the greatest moment of Vaessen`s embryonic career, as his goal consigned the mighty Juventus to their first ever defeat to a British side in their own stadium and put the Gunners through to the Cup Winners Cup Final. Vaessen enthusiastically remembered in an interview in 1994,

“I`ll never forget the silence when I scored. The firecrackers, the drums, the chanting all stopped. It was eerie. We made up for it in the bar afterwards. 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.”

It should have been the fledgling of a brilliant career, the first of many exhilarating moments. Tragically, it was to be a brief soiree in the sun and a moment he would cling to desperately for the rest of his life. A winning goal in a European semi final should be the making of any young striker. For Paul Vaessen, it was the killing of him. In the following season, Vaessen went down under a heavy challenge in a North London derby with Tottenham. He required an exploratory knee operation. Paul Vaessen never played professionally again. A series of knee operations simply could not find, much less solve, the source of the excruciating pain in his knee. After two years of emotional and physical agony, Arsenal terminated his contract and Vaessen was forced to retire aged 21.

“I was just 21, and when the doors of Highbury shut behind me, I just had no idea what to do. I was on the scrap heap.”

Vaessen had reportedly experimented, as most teenagers do, with soft drugs in his early teens. But with the prospect of a football career to work towards, the scene did not consume him as it did many of his inner city contemporaries. But at 21, his dream career over. In those days, clubs were less socially responsible and offered him no counselling or advice, they simply ushered him out of the door and wished him well. It is probably out of Arsenal`s liberal guilt that the story of what happened next to Paul Vaessen is scarcely repeated through official club mouthpieces. On the Official Arsenal History DVD, his goal against Juve is suspiciously skated over despite its significance, treated and referred to fleetingly in order to assuage their sense of responsibility. With no career prospects, Vaessen went back to Bermondsey and rejoined some old school friends. By now, his old chums had moved on from smoking spliffs in burnt out cars and under swings, by now they were “chasing the dragon” in their council flats. Vaessen joined in this deadly pass time, heating heroin under foil, turning it into an oily vapour and inhaling the fumes. Vaessen quickly became addicted, whilst also feeding his inactive mind with cocaine, and to ease the come downs he would take the potent downer benzodiazepine. Vaessen quickly fell into a spiral of addiction and crime.

In order to feed his £100 a day habit, Vaessen would frequently steal, civilian street muggings, stealing from supermarkets, warehouses and vans. At a time when he should have been appearing regularly in opposition penalty boxes, he was now adept at finding himself alone in the dock, unable to pay court fines. His wife soon left him and took their young son with her, Paul moved in with his parents, but soon outstayed his welcome due to his manic quest for intoxication. He was soon on the streets, “sleeping where I fell” as Vaessen himself put it. Further drama and heartbreak were ahead, when a drug deal on the Old Kent Road went drastically wrong, Vaessen was stabbed six times in his side and rushed to Guy`s Hospital. It is reputed that he twice died on the operating table, before he was successfully resuscitated. By chance, he crossed paths with Gary Lewin whilst in Guy`s. Lewin had been an apprentice at Arsenal before injury cut his career short. Whilst Lewin was a training physiotherapist at Guy`s hospital, applying himself to another discipline, Vaessen had fallen into a depressing circle of vice. Vaessen should have been in intensive care for a few months, but driven on by addiction, he checked himself out of the hospital just four days after briefly making acquaintance with the reaper on the operating table. He was back on the streets and searching for his next hit. But no narcotic induced high would ever replicate that which he experienced in Turin in 1980. The moment proved to be both his most treasured memory and a maudlin reminder that the absolute threshold of his life had already shot by him at the age of 18 and he had no chance to ever match or excel it. Sometimes, achieving the dream is responsible for more heartache than chasing it.

Vaessen drifted along with his addictions, living hand to mouth and dossing down with friends here and there, constantly on a self destructive journey to service his next hit. But in May 1993, he was beginning to show signs of recovery from his drug addled existence when he checked into a detox clinic in Bexleyheath. After his seven week stint Paul moved to Andover where he met his girlfriend Sally Tinkler, who had a two year old daughter Abigail. In search of solace from his demons, Vaessen became a born again Christian and even found work as a paint sprayer before he and Sally had a son, who they named Jack. Reinvigorated by fatherhood and his new found religion, Vaessen applied to a nearby college so he could train to be a sports physiotherapist- just as his seemingly ulterior ego Gary Lewin had done. Lamentably, this story is no fairytale and has no bildungsroman to bring a smile amidst the tears. By now, Vaessen`s knee injury was so chronic, that he simply could not manage the physiotherapists` course. Following several operations to his cartilage and ligaments, Vaessen was now in a state whereby his hip, thigh and knee bones were fused together so profoundly that he could barely straighten his leg. For Vaessen, this was the final straw. His second chance in life had been snatched away from him by the very same ailment that so cruelly robbed him of his first.

Vaessen would apparently still kick a ball around with the local kids in Farnborough and talk endlessly about his time at Arsenal and his goal in Turin. The memory of it still clung to him as lecherously as he clung to it, living in its glory but haunted by its shadow. Vaessen fell back into heroin addiction to numb his anguish and his girlfriend Sally Tinkler, reached the end of her tether in 1995 when her then 7 year old daughter Abigail telephoned her Mum in a panic as she found her stepfather slung over the staircase banisters with a needle still stuck in his arm. By Court order, Vaessen was moved to Bristol and prescribed methadone. But it was fruitless, he got addicted to that too. About the only other activity Vaessen reputedly undertook by the late 90s other than scoring hard drugs, was to find a rabble of kids to kick a ball about with, regaling them over and over again with his heroics in Italy. The memory was all he had in his life now, bar the sickly sweet kick of methadone and the prick of the needle. In 1998 he was found by Police talking to himself in the toilet of Asda supermarket in Farnborough, where he had just stolen some women`s tights. As police led him away, he pleaded that he had crippling pain in his leg and couldn`t walk. The police marched him on regardless and he fell in pain, swiping his foot angrily at a police officer`s shins as he did. On a football pitch, swiping at someone`s shins would have earned him a red card and a three match suspension tops In this case, it earned him a 90 day prison sentence, for which he was granted bail on condition that he be remanded into his brother`s custody in Henbury, Bristol.

Vaessen briefly got back together with Sally Tinkler, but his increasingly erratic and sometimes physical behaviour meant the relationship did not last for long. Vaessen moved back out again in 2000 and went to live with his brother in Bristol, where he descended further into the arms of his addictions. He did briefly try to re-establish contact with Nicky Law, who had been his best friend from his time in the Arsenal Reserve team. Perhaps the memory of his once glittering prospects touched him to re-forge links with the past that haunted his soul. Law was apparently shocked by how incoherent his old friend had been. You see, there were no tabloid exposes on Vaessen or his exploits, he had largely been consigned to football`s scrap heap and forgotten. He had severed all of his football friendships upon retirement and never revisited them. Law was desperate to find help for his old friend but by then it was too late. On 8 August 2001, Vaessen`s friend found him dead in the bathroom of the house he shared with his brother in Bristol. The coroner`s report delivered a verdict of accidental death and noted that there were a high level of toxins in Vaessen`s blood at the time of death.

Vaessen`s death received no media coverage in any national newspaper, nor had any of his predicaments since his retirement in 1982. His passing was given a few lines in the free local Bristol newspaper, the Bristol Observer. Tragically, the article did not note that Vaessen had ever been a footballer of any repute. He was chillingly described as “Addict Paul Vaessen was found dead in his Henbury home after overdosing.” He was 39 years old. His addictions had consumed him to the point that the reputation he had enjoyed as Arsenal`s one goal wonder in Turin had been swallowed up by his reputation as a local drug addict in some faceless suburb near Bristol. His transition from Highbury hero to Henbury heroin abuser is very sadly emphasised by his old best friend from his footballing days, Nicky Law, who in an interview in 2002 articulated his regret at his friend`s demise, before stopping and then looking up at the interviewer, before morbidly remarking, “Do you know what? I don`t even know where he`s buried.” The starry eyed 18 year old cockney who reeled away from Dino Zoff`s back post in celebration in April 1980 was gone and his best friend during that epoch making moment of his life did not know where he was buried, Vaessen himself had spent the ensuing twenty years burying the ghosts that that danced around that memory, never fully able to extricate himself from its misery, never wanting to let go of its glory. We all like to think of ourselves as avid consumers of this beautiful game, but what happens the beautiful game consumes you? Paul Vaessen found out to his fatal cost.LD.