Paul Canoville

After starting out at Hillingdon Borough, Paul spent fve years at Chelsea, playing 79 League games and scoring 11 goals, and was in the side that won the old Second Division in 1983. He was sold to Reading for £50,000 in August 1986.

He played 16 games for Reading, scoring 4 times before being seriously injured, and after a comeback failed he played at Enfield, and Maidenhead United before having a spell with the Woods. Paul, a talented left-sided player, also appeared for Burnham.


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 REVEALED: The shocking revelations of
Chelsea's first black player Paul Canoville

By Matt Barlow - DAILY MAIL, May 2009

Paul Canoville was settling into a seat at Stamford Bridge to watch Chelsea take on Barcelona when he was recognised. 'Hey, Canners.' A wave of acknowledgement, a thumbs-up, a handshake, small talk and then a confession. The routine is familiar to Canoville.

'Paul, I was one of the idiots who shouted those things. Sorry, mate. I never meant it. I'm not a racist. I was just swept along with the crowd.' That's the usual format. Canoville has heard this thinly-veiled plea for absolution several times in 27 years since he became Chelsea's first black player.

It may well happen again on Saturday as he strolls down Wembley Way to cheer on Chelsea in the FA Cup Final. He is getting used to it, but he still doesn't know how to reply. What can he say? Is he expected to forgive those who turned his dream into a nightmare that haunted him for years? How can you have a chuckle about racist taunts from your own supporters?

'It's a case of getting these people and talking to them,' says Canoville.

'They're grown up now. So I ask them, "What were you trying to achieve? Why did you feel you could racially abuse me? What was going through your mind at that time?" It would be nice to have time to sit and hear their views, chat about it.'

Talk has been therapeutic for Canoville. He started to open up as part of rehab from crack cocaine addiction and, before he knew it, his award-winning autobiography Black and Blue was flying off the shelves. It tells his gripping story of survival, from his strict upbringing in a single-parent family, through petty thievery, borstal, homelessness (he lived in an abandoned car for three weeks), football, racism, injury, drugs, cancer and more.

His experience at Chelsea shamed English football in the Eighties, when racism and violence stalked the terraces in the form of National Front skinheads.

Plucked from non-league football with Hillingdon Borough in December 1981, he made his first-team debut four months later, at the age of 20, as a substitute, away at Crystal Palace.

When he climbed from the bench to warm up, Chelsea supporters screamed: 'Sit down you black c***', 'You f***ing w*g, f*** off'. Then they started to chant: 'We don't want the n****r, we don't want the n****r, la la la la'. A banana landed near his feet.

'I felt physically sick,' recalls Canoville.

'I felt totally numb. To this day, I do not know how I got home. I was living in Slough. I don't think I would have gone on the train. I would have got a lift but I don't know who from.

'All I know was that when I came off I sat in the corner and I was frightened. Was this the end? Will Chelsea say it's a risk and they can't go on with it? There were a lot of things going through my mind.

'I didn't know anything about the fans at Chelsea. I didn't support Chelsea. I didn't go to watch them. When I trained or played in the reserves, I still didn't see them.

'I didn't see the first team until I'd been chosen. I didn't even realise what was coming. I'm in the dressing room thinking, "Yeah, I'm going to put on a performance". Until you come outside and warm up and it's like, "What the hell?".

'This went on for two-and-a-half years. Even when I scored it was like: Nah, it's still 0-0, the n****r scored, it doesn't count. You're going, "What did I hear?" I didn't even go home and tell anybody what was going on.

'People would say, "Paul, how was the game?" and I'd be, "Yeah, wicked man". I didn't want to be negative.'

Canoville built up barriers and blocked out the abuse. Over the years at Stamford Bridge, his ability and effort silenced the racists among the supporters but there were issues in the dressing room, too. 'I still ask myself how I got through it,' he adds.

'Did I say nothing because I didn't want to be a pest? Did I not want to be rocking the boat because I was the only black player in the first team?

'Normally I'm the sort of person who will tell it straight if I don't like something, but I just closed up. Being a footballer was a dream for me. Here was my chance. I was coming in late and I doubted whether I was good enough. Later in life, my eyes were opened.'

A knee injury meant Canoville was a professional footballer for less than six years but his four-and-a-half years at Chelsea ended after a pre-season fight with a drunken teammate, who called him a 'black c***'.

It was not an isolated incident but he was advised against naming and shaming the culprits in his book.

'They are names you would know,' he nods.

Chelsea's reaction to the incident was to talk Canoville into a £50,000 transfer to Reading, even though he had three years left on his contract.

'Mugsy here was the one treated like a troublemaker,' he says.

'It was upsetting. Looking back, Chelsea should have done more for me. I didn't think so at the time, but looking back, yeah, they really should.'

In the past couple of years, Canoville has returned to the Chelsea family, turning out for the old boys' team and working with their education department.

As ever, the relationship has not been perfect. The club resisted selling his book in the club shop, citing the drug element as the reason, but they helped him get a ticket for the FA Cup Final against Everton and he certainly feels more valued than before.

'The Ken Bates era didn't look after me,' says Canoville.

'Now we can get tickets to watch a game. That's great and it's really appreciated. We have dinners and meet the fans. But football's changed. It's big business now. The training ground at Cobham is un-be-lievable! We played there with the ex-players. It's a shame more of the fans don't get to see it.

'You can't even get near the players. The channels you have to go through just to get a shirt signed doesn't make sense. Back in my day, you'd come up to us with something and we signed it.

'Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't take away the wages. I've seen how the game goes... with one tackle you could be done. I won't argue with the wages they're getting but it's the celebrity side of life. If I'm a fan and I want an autograph, I don't expect players to turn round and blow me a no.'

The closest Canoville got to Wembley as a player was a League Cup semi-final defeat by Sunderland in 1985. Twelve years later, he watched Chelsea's FA Cup triumph on television from his hospital bed, recovering from a setback following an operation and treatment for non- Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Twice he has beaten cancer - both times the disease struck after he became hooked on crack cocaine and this, he insists, is not a coincidence. Since kicking the habit, cleaning up his life and finding work as an assistant teacher at St Matthew's Primary School in Westminster, he has discovered a gift for communicating with children.

This year, he has launched Senkaa, a business which starts up youth projects to tackle gun and knife crime.

'I thought racism was enough to go through and it still goes on, it's just unseen, behind your back now,' says Canoville. 'But this knife killing is like an epidemic. Last year, 29 kids dead from youths killing youths? I can't believe what's going on.'

Few can be better qualified to offer advice on pitfalls than Canoville. He has tripped into every pit imaginable in his 47 years but he has climbed out of them again.

'It might not have seemed like it when I came out of football at my peak and had all my troubles with drugs and cancer but I realise I am here today for a reason,' he says.

'It's helping the kids. And I totally enjoy going into school, which I used to hate.

'I'm getting up at 6am just to go to school. It's a turn-around. Unbelievable. But I've always got on with kids. I don't know why, but when I talk they always listen.

'They'll say, "This is my Mr Canoville, he used to play for Chelsea" and I'm going, "All right kids, calm down".

'I was so nervous applying for the job. These people are teachers, they've been through further education. I didn't do exams. I didn't want to go to school. But they're just like me and you. They want to go to the pub and have a drink. They've accepted me and I've accepted them. I love it.'

Canoville should not be surprised to discover a connection with children. He has fathered 11 of them with 10 different women. Tye, born with a heart defect in 1995, died in Canoville's arms, only a few days old. The others are aged from 13 to 29.

'I spend some quality time with them now, whereas I didn't give them that time before when it was all about fast cars and drugs or the football life,' admits Canoville.

'It's something I'm trying to repair. I hope they can understand from my experiences.'

Cheering on Chelsea against Middlesbrough from the Royal Free Hospital's cancer wing in 1997, Canoville saw a black manager, Ruud Gullit, lead out the team, and Eddie Newton, one of two black players to start for the Blues, score in a 2-0 win. At Wembley on Saturday, Guus Hiddink could start with seven black players .

To reach this point, was it necessary for one man in a Chelsea shirt to be subjected to a disgusting public humiliation by the NF morons who followed the club? What if they had beaten Canoville? What if he had run from the racist mob after his debut at Selhurst Park instead of staying to silence them? Would a black footballer want to play for such a club again?

He is not entirely comfortable being hailed a pioneer, but Canoville's role in Chelsea's success cannot be ignored.

'Sooner or later someone probably had to take that grief,' he admits.

'There were several youth players coming through the ranks who were at the club before me. How would they have taken that?

'I was shy but I was a bit older when I went through that. I was strong but it still had a big effect on me. I've made it through and now I look back and I'm proud to know I pulled on the Chelsea shirt.

'I'm here today and that's the main thing. If any youngster can reflect on my experiences and learn from them, then I'll be more than happy.

'I'll do what I can do now and if I can put my footprint on this world, I'll be happy.'