Stuck In A Moment: The Ballad Of Paul Vaessen
by Stewart Taylor
Published by GCR Books
It’s a tough book to review, let’s not beat about the bush on this one. Not because it is a badly written book, far from it. Indeed, the authors own experiences with mental health issues lend an empathy which make it a very well written book. It’s just such a desperately sad story. One where the world was at a boy’s feet only to be ripped away in the cruelest of manners and with such devastating effect on his and the lives of those around him.
And despite this, despite the anguish, there is barely a bad word spoken of Paul Vaessen. Not out of politeness either, there is a genuine affection for him, man and boy, which is obvious through the tragedy of his tale.
Don’t make the mistake of believing this to be an apology for him either; there is no romanticism attached to the tale and how it unfolded. The warts and everything associated with his addiction, are laid bare. The rise from the south east London council estate to Arsenal followed by a descent if not into Hell, certainly towards a living one for himself, his friends and family.
The books structure fits the subject perfectly, a literary documentary with the text frequently interspersed with observations from family and friends through his youth, players, managers and coaches from his time at Arsenal. In his rise from the playground, Vaessen’s story is very familiar being a path trodden by many of his peers and predecessors. The odd scrape but at the forefront of everything there was a burning desire to play football. Strangely enough, this was initially hidden from his father, himself a former professional in the lower reaches, as the young Paul excelled at swimming to the extent that there are few doubts he would have succeeded professionally.
And in teenage years, the distractions that would haunt his later life first became evident.
But it’s because of football that we are aware of Paul Vaessen. The anonymous reporting of his death at the time would be less surprising – shocking even – if he had been the ordinary man in the street. Turin, 1980, made sure that term could never be applied to Vaessen. I defy anyone reading that particular passage of play to not have the hairs on their arm rise and remain erect as you trace the arc of the ball over Zoff and into the path of the onrushing Vaessen.
A moment to savour; blessing or curse for the player. Evidently a millstone around his neck, not personally but in the expectations it created in others. The conversation with Warwick Bean on this very point is illuminating, talking as he does from the experience of having his career curtailed through injury as well. That and the contrast in how football was then, how Arsenal was then and how the game and club are now. How players were and are treated, protected, are stark contrasts.
As it was, the injury suffered in a North London Derby at White Hart Lane negatively impacted his life from the moment it happened. The general consensus is that it robbed him of his half-yard of pace and never the quickest of players to begin with, that was the beginning of the end. His return saw him quickly become a focal point of the dissatisfaction with Arsenal at the time, leading to the bitterness towards supporters that never left him.
In co-operating with the book, giving it backing, the family took a courageous step. Football is still learning its lessons over treating current and former players with addictions with support given through the PFA and the likes of the Sporting Chance clinic. If other families know they are not alone – or rather as alone as they think – then we as society are learning. A small step in the right direction might be taken.
You can purchase Stuck In A Moment: The Ballad Of Paul Vaessen here