Book Review – Stuck in a Moment: The Ballad of Paul Vaessen by Stewart Taylor

Paul Vaessen was at Arsenal Football Club from 1977/78 until 1982/83. During those six seasons he started in just 27 games first team games, with 14 additional appearances from the bench, scoring 9 goals.

The trouble with those statistics is that viewed on they own they don’t tell the story of Paul Vaessen’s career. Lost within his limited time at Highbury, there is one substitute appearance and one goal that standout.

On 23 April 1980 Arsenal played Juventus at the Stadio Comunale in the second leg of the European Cup Winners Cup Semi-Final. The Gunners had drawn 1-1 with the Italian side at Highbury and knew that they had to go and win at a ground where no British team had previously won in order to go through to the Final.

With 75 minutes gone, the nineteen-year-old Vaessen came on for David Price with the game still level at 0-0. With just two minutes remaining in the game, Graham Rix broke down the wing and delivered a looping cross which the Arsenal substitute Vaessen headed in. The goal was so late in the game that Juventus had no time to get an equaliser. Arsenal had won the game 2-1 on aggregate and Vaessen was the hero.

Unfortunately for the youngster that was to prove the highpoint of his short career.

That goal is captured on the cover of the hardback version of the book in three frames, which as they are repeated through the second and third iteration of the image, fade – a visual metaphor for Vaessen’s rapid disappearance from the game.

The fact is that just two years after that magical night in Turin, Vaessen was forced to retire due to knees injuries and died aged just 39 from a drugs overdose.

A truly tragic story.

Through this book – which was deservedly nominated for the long-list of the 2014 William Hill Sports Book of the Year – Stewart Taylor sympathetically tells the story of Paul Vaessen’s moment of glory and his subsequent sad decline.

Taylor is able to tell the story through extensive interviews with Vaessen’s family, friends and former teammates and provides an honest picture of the former Gunner. This ‘worts and all’ account shows that Vaessen struggled with drug addiction for much of his life, and led to a less than glamourous lifestyle in which he became involved in crime in order to feed his habit.

Any death in such circumstances is a sad thing and the tragedy for those left behind is compassionately captured by Taylor. Paul Vaessen’s death left two children without a father, a brother faced with the loss of his sibling and battling drug addiction himself and parents without one of their boys, forever wondering if there was anything they could have done differently that might have saved their son.

The pain of Paul Vaessen’s death is best summed by his mum Maureen.

“He wasn’t a bad boy. He took a knock in life – his early retirement – and he couldn’t get over it.”

“When he came home that last Christmas he turned up with this silly hat on…I keep that hat on my bedpost. I hold it every night. I can smell his hair. I tell him I love him, that I miss him. I say, ‘You silly bastard Paul. You silly bastard.’”


Note: A paperback version was released by Pitch Publishing in 2018.


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