We are the vampires. Football from the heights of elation to the depths of despair

by Tony Attwood


How strong are you?

I mean really, how strong?

When I wrote an article on the Arsenal History Society site about Paul Vaessen’s life earlier this year I received an email back from a regular reader asking that if I was going to publish something as moving and ultimately tragic as this, would I mind not publishing it at seven in the morning.

And I could see the writer’s point, for Paul Vaessen’s story is the ultimate tale of the horror that lurks around the corner for anyone who is suddenly picked up by fate, and then dropped just as quickly.

Of course if you are a footballer who comes from a middle class background, who is educated, deep thinking, spiritual, with the fulsome support of family and friends, and even in your playing days already thinking about going forward with your life after your career is over, then the chances of you recovering from a debilitating injury are high.

But if you’re just a regular kid from a regular background, who happens to be a superb player, it can be tough.

And maybe most of us have little sympathy for such players, because well, they’ve played professionally, being the darling of the crowds.  They’ve had what we want.

Even if we recognise that now, in the 21st century, something like 30% of Premier League footballers are bankrupt within five years of finishing their careers, we say, well, that’s their lookout.  They had the fame, they enjoyed the moment, up to them to sort their lives out.

It’s hardly our fault is it?  We watched, we screamed, we shouted, we took what they gave us, we worshipped, we idolised…. And then we forget them.

But then think of something worse from a player’s point of view.  Something far, far worse.  Imagine you are a guy who does something utterly totally incredibly amazing very, very early in your career.  Something that transforms your world and projects you to the very centre of the beating heart of the nation (or at least that part of the nation that engages 100% with football).

Then you have what Warhol called your 15 minutes a fame.

But then what?  Well then you have problems.

The start of Chapter 6 of Stewart Taylor’s biography of Paul Vaessen, “Stuck in a moment”, makes the point perfectly. It cover 23 April 1980 – the moment when Paul Vaessen’s life changed.  When he moved from being so unknown that none of the journalists at the game even knew his name, to being a celebrity across the whole of Europe.

All in one moment.

The moment was the 1980 Cup Winners Cup Semi Final on 23 April.

Arsenal had drawn the first leg with Juventus 1–1 at home and needed a single goal to go through to the final.  The utterly unknown Paul Vaessen came on as a sub on 75 minutes and scored on 88 to take Arsenal into that final.

Within 10 minutes his home in south London was besieged by journalists.  By the next morning he was on the back page of every newspaper in Europe, and on the front page of quite a few as well.  His moment had come.

But then injuries affected him and he was forced to retire from football before he was 21 having played 39 games and scored nine goals.  His life collapsed and he sank as low as it is possible to sink.  And then some.

When he died no national papers ran obituaries.  The local paper that covered his death didn’t know anything about his background.

Paul’s tragedy was that nothing in his life prepared him for his life.  Which sounds crazy – but what I mean is that nothing had been done to prepare him for fame, and nothing had been done to prepare him for injury and the end of his career.

And so he sank.

Of course none of us can live our lives blaming everyone else, and everyone who has ever had anything to do with any addiction will tell you, the addiction doesn’t end until the individual is ready to make it end.  I’ve never suffered from addiction so I can’t comment, but those who have, have always told me, taking control is so, so, so much easier said than done.

Thus I read this book with tears, and with confusion, for I just don’t know how to react.

Part way through the book (page 127 to be exact) we reach December 1980.  “Next up was Manchester United and Paul was back in alongside Frank Stapleton in place of Alan Sunderland who was again suspended.”

And in a moment my thoughts changed direction.  Alan Sunderland – another man who was caught in a moment – a moment of knocking in the winner in the FA Cup against Man U in that 2-0 up, 2-2 with minutes to play, 3-2 to the Arsenal, final.

I saw him interviewed at the last season, looking his age certainly, but clearly benefiting from a retirement on the island of Gozo in the Med.   He seems to have done ok, full of life, vigour, and joyousness as he grabbed the mic off the interviewer and had another moment of fun.

Of course Sunderland had a full career, maybe that was part of the difference, but still I come back to one point that keeps jumping into my head.

Those of us who love football trade on these kids.  I don’t mean we buy and sell them of course, I mean we are the vampires getting our kicks from what they do, until in the end they can’t do it anymore.  They’ve been plucked from normal everyday life, cocooned, thrown into the limelight, we’ve sucked them dry, and then forget them as our clubs cast them aside.  If they are lucky like Alan Sunderland, the casting aside is at the end of the career. If they are incredibly lucky they move seamlessly into another career – like Alan Smith.   If they are totally unlucky and unprepared like Paul Vaessen, it is all over before the career has even started, but we’ve had our blood.

And even as they are still being cast aside, we are sucking the life blood out of the next kid and the next and the next.

I defy anyone to read this book and not to start thinking, hang on, what are we doing here?  Of course clubs look after their youngsters better this day, and the money is sensational – but even so, for every Dennis Bergkamop and Thierry Henry, there are so many Paul Vaessen’s.  This is part of the empire that we fight for.  Is this really right?

“Stuck in a moment” is a brilliant book is so many ways.  Tony Adam’s introduction starts like any old intro from a famous man having a few words at the start. Boring, boring…. but before the end of the first page there are lines which ate into my heart and my soul and started this train of thought that ran to the end of the book.

And that is just the first page of the introduction!

I love the multiple, detailed reprints from the newspapers in the book, giving us a complete vision of just what was being said at the time.   And I love the quotes at the start of each chapter.  (“I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” – Lord Byron).

And tonight as I ponder and remember standing on the terraces watching Paul Vaessen, I know I will not be able to sleep.


Stuck in a Moment: The ballad of Paul Vaessen by Stuart Taylor

Published by GCR Books and available direct from the publisher:  www.gcrbooks.co.uk

31 Replies to “We are the vampires. Football from the heights of elation to the depths of despair”

  1. Only slightly off topic but I will never forget my friendship with two 1st Div professional footballers who were colleagues of mine during my schooldays.
    The first I met in a pub, towards the end of one Summer during which he had consumed much beer. He was red-faced and bloated and was returning to his Club a week early “to dry out” he said. He then had a good season as far as I can recall.
    The other player was a family man, watched his diet and drank in strict moderation. I met him at our local golf club, in late May and was immediately struck by his gaunt expression, hard as nails handshake and tired eyes. He’d played in the Cup Final and lost. “You look ready for a rest” I said. “Just about” he replied. This second encounter sticks in my mind the most because it brought home to me the immense physical strain players at the top level are compelled to endure in order to stay at the top.

  2. Tony,
    thanks for this article that makes you think a bit deeper and more about life and football. I never realised what happened to Paul Vaesen to be honest. Shame on me. To my defence I will bring up the fact that in those days the internet didn’t exist so we weren’t in the know about such things. What a sad fate for a player once on top and looking at his stats I must say not a bad player. 6 goals in 32 starts not that bad I would say. Not that I have ever seen him play in real life I think.

    It makes you think a bit more about how lonely it must be at the top for these players. Not when you are on top of course and things go for you. Then you have all the love and friends you can imagine.

    But once the injury curse hit you it is a lonely job. And a long and lonely way back to the playing field…or to the end of your career. In a way he reminds me of my own career. As he was born in the same year as I, I also had to retire from my football career (be it not at the heights he had reached) after a career ending injury.

    The day I had to stop my career I decided to stop my addictions. In order to make sure that something good came out of something really bad. So I stopped smoking and I swore never to drink alcohol again. I wished Vaesen had done the same but it looks that he did the complete opposite and sank away. Poor lad.

    Also you mention the vampires that we are. I never looked at it like that. And of course you are right in using such a comparison. But in a way Untold Arsenal is maybe one of the few sites on the web that does it a bit different. Because apart from the blood sucking we also try to give something back to our manager and players. We try to give them back the respect they deserve when they play for us. We try to support them when things turn bad for them. We don’t kick them while they are down on the floor. We leave that to the you know who.

    My wife when she could still work was doing a job in the social sector trying to help children with problems (physical but also mental problems). When you ‘saved’ a kid it felt great. But not all could be saved and she knew when the system of help failed to help in some cases. I then told here that you can’t save them all. There will always be people who don’t want to be rescued. And that in fact is a decision we have to respect and accept. Which is not always easy.

    Nice article Tony and food for thoughts. Lots of food. Lots of thoughts…. Untold at its best. Thank you.

  3. I do not begrudge the players for earning generously and for their fame which in most cases are justified.
    But sometimes when you read about a fallen star ,you do pity them but pause to wonder how they were laid so low .
    Those who who have firm family roots and ties and with some education seem to fare better.
    While those who believed the hype and partied wild ,don’t usually prosper .They always bring this song to my mind –
    Bad Company’s ” Shooting star “.

  4. If you ever get a chance read a book entitled “The greatest footballer you never heard of”

    Its about a player called Robin Friday and is yet another tragic tale about a footballer, a very talented one who had addictions.

  5. Brilliant article, a truly tragic situation with one of our players, who suffered at the hands of the aaa of the day on top of his other many troubles. Great that Tony Adams and others do a lot to help players who often need it
    Robin Friday……by all accounts an incredible player …according to my Uncle at least….and one of the few players of that era immortalised on a record cover….. of The Man Don’t Give a Fuck….by popular welsh beat combo…The Super Furry Animals

  6. Paul’s time was pre internet and in those days players came and went and we never new what happened to them unless the match programme or a football mag run a ‘Where are they now feature.’

    I remember an exuberant Terry Neil who sent on Paul at the Juventus game saying how it was that Paul made his debut that night. It seems there was no one else who could play. So it was that Paul made every kids dream debut.

    But then he disappeared! I remember trying to find out what had happened to him. All I could find was that he was injured.

    Only much later did I learn of the tragedy that came his way. So sad, so very sad.

  7. Paul Vaessen came from an era where football was a sport and many players had to find new lives after they retired or were injured. I really feel for those players from that era.

    These days my view has changed a lot. Footballers – almost to the the man – care about money and glory. Fans, club, tradition, loyalty. All non existent. So these days I watch the club and hope the club do well. I don’t really care who manages us, plays for us, scores for us, gets injured. I have no thoughts about any of them beyond ‘what can they do right now for Arsenal FC’. If they are doing well I like them, if not I couldn’t care less about them or if they ever played for Arsenal again.

    So I guess, yes, these days I reciprocate the attitude of the players themselves and whilst that may make me an entertainment ‘vampire’, I think that footballers are the modern day equivalent of Count Dracula himself.

  8. jayramfootball

    As I am a roll about football books and in view of your oh so true comment I would recommend reading a book called ” My father and other working class heroes” by Gary Imlach.
    It details the world of football before the abolition of the maximum wage

  9. @Mike T

    I agree,the book by Gary Imlach is very good and quite unusual.

    Just thinking about Tony’s article, can we really be held responsible as individuals for the tragedies that happen to young footballers?

    In truth, there are many other young people who waste their lives in various ways.

    To me, this is a problem of society at large that takes no responsibility to guarantee young people a useful future with a decent worthwhile job.

  10. jayramfootball wrote:

    “I don’t really care who manages us, plays for us, scores for us, gets injured. I have no thoughts about any of them beyond ‘what can they do right now for Arsenal FC’. If they are doing well I like them, if not I couldn’t care less about them or if they ever played for Arsenal again.”

    And I say: WOW!

    You would have been a great white cotton plantation owner in the American south in the era of slavery. They shared your peculiar humanity.

    This is arguably the worst comment that I have ever read from any fan about any team. You might think that you were expressing your passion for Arsenal but all you did is show that you are unworthy of calling yourself a fan. If we take out all the listed people that you are contemptuous of, what is left of Arsenal for you to support?

    What the fuck!

  11. @Bootoomee
    Strange how some people think alike.
    Reading the article, i almost immediately also thought of slavery(the most horrific thing ever to happen in mankind, i have never cried so much before or since i realised the real, real horrors of it), and the fact that we(collectively) really do not deserve the right to call ourselves human.
    The fact that humanity(Synonyms: sympathy, tenderness, goodwill) should actually preclude things like this ever happening at all, but humanity(noun, all human beings collectively; the human race) ends up being forced to live in a concept, the concept of “strongest and fittest survive”.
    We(collectively) surely have the intelligence to realise that this concept is really flawed, and i do try to think that most of us do try to start at home, changing ourselves to try to earn that right to call ourselves human, and hoping that others will take example and change themselves to earn that right too.

    It is really sad to learn of any new atrocities that we(collectively) are all a part of, and there is really no solace at all that some think these things have to happen in order for us to learn and grow. Sad.

  12. Its interesting howcan read different things into them when others read the same.

    Its a bit like looking at a blob on paint on a canvas. Some will see a countryside scene others will see… a blob of paint!

    For me all jamray was saying was about loyalty and to be fair its something that many on here throw insults at the likes of RVP and Ashley Cole

    The reality is few if any players, managers, even directors would even blink if they were to become involved or play for another club.

    Players are the likes of our clubs are very well looked after. The are paid vast sums even at academy level . Some say that’s why those that don’t make it struggle to adjust to life outside football just the same as those that have made it often struggle when they are no longer the centre of attention.

    I have little sympathy for players when the finish with football. Very few of those that have finished with football will not have been granted a huge step up, financially in their formative years and most will have a pension for life from the PFA.

  13. When reading the news on line today I happened to read an article about HMRC and how they are now publishing the names of employers that have been fined for their failure to adhere to the National Minimum Wage and I cam across this bit toward the end of the article

    HMRC said this week that more than £4.6m had been paid out to 22,000 people, including staff at a Premier League club, who had been paid less than the minimum wage.

    The unnamed football club, which made staff pay for their uniforms and also made deductions for travelling time, had to pay arrears of more than £27,500 to 3,000 workers.

    I had heard something about this some time ago and really struggled to believe it especially when I was told the name of the club but no here it is !

    Now if we want to start a debate about a clubs failure in terms of a EPL understanding and taking its social responsibility seriously here’s a very good starting point

  14. Mike T,

    I don’t that players are asking for your sympathy and neither do I. I believe that modern players are well paid enough for them to go and live a perfectly good life after their playing days. Even the not very lucky (injuries etc) leave the game at an age at which they can still acquire new skills and make something of themselves.

    Having said all that, jayramfooball’s comment is just inhumane. I don’t know how you reason but if you have just boldly showed disregard for welfare of the people who make the football club a football club with explicit disdain as was expressed above then you lose the right to ever be called a fan.

    We all have our pet peeves. By golly, I have mine. But to give a blanket “I don’t care what happens to all those people who work for the club that I love” is just so beyond the pale that I can’t believe that any thinking person would ever say it or put in writing.

    Here is a question for you: Do you share the sentiment that – “I don’t really care who manages us, plays for us, scores for us, gets injured. I have no thoughts about any of them beyond ‘what can they do right now for Chelsea FC’. If they are doing well I like them, if not I couldn’t care less about them or if they ever played for Chelsea again.”

    I’ll like to know please.

  15. para,

    To be clear, I don’t think there is any similarity between football players and slaves. I consider it a serious insult to the memories of millions of people who toiled and died under the subjugation of their fellow men to even think about it. While I sympathise with Paul Vaessen and every other footballer whose career were cut short by injuries and other factors, it is absolutely ridiculous to compare them with slaves. What happened to them is not peculiar to football but is prevalent in all fields of entertainment.

    Popular child actors fail as adults regularly; promising young musicians would fail to hack it as adults from time to time and in every sport, there are cases of prodigies who fail to make it in the end. Yes, it is always sad but unlike slaves, they can always do something else with their lives and as Tony rightly said, those with good family backgrounds usually move on.

    My comparison of jayramfootball to slave OWNERS is based on his “I don’t care what happens to all those people who work for the club that I love” attitude. His dehumanisation of these people by talking about them like they are mere tools is unbelievable.

    About players betraying Arsenal by leaving, well such is life. Arsenal also ship players off when we believe that they aren’t good enough. Besides, being jilted numerous time is no excuse for misogyny.

  16. @bootoome, WTF – what has slavery got to do with it?

    Unless I have missed something, these footballers are paid millions and live like gods. They have access to wherever they want to be and seem to live by their own rules, not anyone else’s. You’re comparison to how a slave owner feels about slaves and how I feel about footballers is quite ridiculous to say the least.

    The fact that you ask what is left of Arsenal football club after players and the manager speaks volumes. Arsenal is so much bigger than the current crop of players who are passing through, or the current manager who is passing through. The tradition and history of the club stands it apart from the personnel currently employed. I would rather it was different. i would rather that the fans and players actually had some sort of connection like they used to, but it just is not that way any more. Tomorrow no one would be surprised if, say, Ramsey signed for City. That is football these days.

    The major point you missed in your eagerness to jump in an attack by comparing me to a slave owner is that I DO NOT EMPLOY THESE PEOPLE or indeed , FORCE THEM TO PLAY for my entertainment. They are employees of a club I support. Given that you compare football clubs to corporations like Samsung, let me ask you… how much do you care about Samsung employees? Now be honest. Tell us about their working conditions and how the products you love are made. Tell us how much you care and what you have been doing to help?

    Some of your comments and attacks are quite laughable but this latest one takes the prize.

    For the record I will state again – I support Arsenal Football Club. When Wenger and all the current crop of players are gone that will remain the case and I won’t even think about what is happening to them after their careers are over unless they are contributing to the club. The players I will remember fondly are of a different era players like David Rocastle, Kenny Sansom, Paul Davis, Liam Brady, yes Paul Vaessen. The list goes on. But the current crop of footballers? No way. Even then, whilst I remember the older generation of players fondly, I am not hypocritical. I would not say I ‘care’ about them. That’s too big a word and requires some kind of action to really mean anything beyond some kind of self gratifying bullshit.

    The same ‘vampirism’ that the OP is talking about applies to this ‘caring’ about players. How exactly do YOU care about them? Watch a few youtube clips to make yourself feel nice? Stick a poster on the wall? Sing a song at the stadium from time to time?

    Dear oh dear – what a nonsense you wrote.

  17. @bootoome,

    One other thing – when you quote me in an attempt to garner support for your views from someone who has initially questioned your logic, please be honest enough to quote the whole message. taking one sentence with the context provided makes me thing you are no better than a hack that writes for The Sun newspaper. It is a pretty cheap tactic and most see through it.

  18. @Bootoomee

    Where did you get the impression that i compared it to slavery?

    Just commenting on the things that humanity(collectively) allows. The intelligence of humans is great enough to stop all of these injustices happening, injustices caused by our(collective) own making, leaving only the things that we have no control over(nature, catastrophes etc) to be dealt with.

  19. @Bootoomee

    I think you have your answer

    As I said blob of paint on a canvas!

  20. jayramfootball wrote:

    “I don’t really care who manages us, plays for us, scores for us, gets injured. I have no thoughts about any of them beyond ‘what can they do right now for Arsenal FC’. If they are doing well I like them, if not I couldn’t care less about them or if they ever played for Arsenal again.”

    You wrote that. I did not twist your words and neither did I misquote you. That was an explicit quote. If you don’t really hold this belief, then don’t post it for the whole world to see.

    The people who only cared about their workers “If they are doing well” and “couldn’t care less about them” if they are not are slave owners. Actually slave owners. Your comment is inhumane and poorly thought out.

  21. Mike T,

    Your obsession with blob of paint makes little sense to me. If you choose to side with those who make inhumane comments, that’s your choice. But don’t talk like there is any kind of ambiguity here because there is none.

  22. Bootoomee

    I have read and re read the comments and the reality is you are looking far too deep into them and for some reason are seeing something that only you can see.

  23. No @bootoomee, you have purposely quoted a sentence from an entire post and missed out the rest. The context is important. As I said, you are coming across like a redtop hack.

    Best you re-trace or stop , because your argument is pathetic.

  24. By the way the full quote is:

    “Paul Vaessen came from an era where football was a sport and many players had to find new lives after they retired or were injured. I really feel for those players from that era.

    These days my view has changed a lot. Footballers – almost to the the man – care about money and glory. Fans, club, tradition, loyalty. All non existent. So these days I watch the club and hope the club do well. I don’t really care who manages us, plays for us, scores for us, gets injured. I have no thoughts about any of them beyond ‘what can they do right now for Arsenal FC’. If they are doing well I like them, if not I couldn’t care less about them or if they ever played for Arsenal again.

    So I guess, yes, these days I reciprocate the attitude of the players themselves and whilst that may make me an entertainment ‘vampire’, I think that footballers are the modern day equivalent of Count Dracula himself.”

    Note the rest of the post carefully.

    1) I do care about older generation players – well in the context that I described in an earlier post at least
    2) I want the CLUB to do well – which is the key preceding point to the partial quote you took (classic red top hack behaviour)
    3) Its the new generation of footballers I take issue with and thus have decided to reciprocate the approach that they take.

    Now quite how that makes me a slave trader, I just cannot fathom. But I am sure you have at least SOME logic in your mind somewhere. You just have not expressed it very well.

    By the way, you didn’t answer my question. Can you let us know how you care for Samsung employees? Since me not caring about Arsenal players apparently makes me a slave trader (lol) then surely (given that you see yourself as a customer of Arsenal the same way as you are a customer of Samsung – your words), you can’t be so hypocritical to NOT be doing something to support Samsung employees that are working under conditions that lead them to kill themselves? Or do you just not care about them as ling as you get your product?

  25. I’m not sure why jayram is getting this level of stick in some quarters. While I wouldn’t have put it quite so bluntly as he did, I think all he was trying to say is that there is very little loyalty in the game these days and that, for me, is an indisputable fact. Particularly at the highest level where cash is king – if you were to go down the divisions then you would probably experience more loyalty at the lesser clubs.

    As a City fan, I know only too well about the jibes from some opposition fans about our players being mercenaries but when you strip it down that’s what many of them are. However, it doesn’t start and stop at City – every club is awash with players that on the one hand declare undying love for said club, but on the other hand if another club came calling that could offer better money and a better chance of winning trophies then there’s a very good chance that they would jump ship. A classic case is van Persie – here was a player that grew up supporting Arsenal and went on to play for the club for, what was it, 8 seasons? Yet as soon as United (and City) came calling he was issuing a damning statement in public criticising Arsenal’s ambition and was off like a shot, eventually joining United and giving his “little boy” speech (the same little boy that grew up supporting Arsenal).

    Jayram’s way of countering the mindset of your typical modern-day footballer is not to have too much of an affinity to any particular player and instead just support the club. Again, while that may seem harsh, it’s probably just his way of dealing with it and as long as he’s still throwing his support behind Arsenal what’s the problem? Let’s remember that many of today’s players don’t give much of a thought about your average fan – sure, they’ll lap up the adulation of the crowd but how many of them seriously consider what sacrifices (financial or otherwise) the supporters have made to watch those players in the flesh. I like to think I’m a bit more of a romantic than the view Jayram holds, but I also know full well that even some of our more down-to-earth players that I do have a lot of time for (such as Zabaleta, Kompany, and Silva) would be off to pastures new if they became unhappy for some reason. They might play it a bit more diplomatically than Yaya the other week, or van Persie, but their intentions would be pretty much the same.

  26. Nowt worse than folk. Humans are the worst exploiters of their own. It starts and ends with greed and laziness. The total abuse & destruction of humans in Europe and the exploitation of humans in the new world have a common denominator. The worst thing that happens, however, is the abused end up more cruel than the abuser in many cases. Humans just do not care how much hurt they impart in their hunt for financial success.

    It is so easy to say sorry or thank you, yet the focus of greed & power does not allow sight of courtesy.

    It would be wonderful if all of us could ask for our fellow man to forgive us our trespass as we forgive others (as in the Lords Prayer).

  27. I guess the Chelsea signing of Fabregas emphasises why I could not give a jot about players. Arsenal success for me, regardless of who achieves it.

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