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Living With the Blues: The Incredible Life of Chelsea's Trailblazing Star

Paul Canoville was a talented winger who became Chelsea's first black player, but he faced vicious racism from a section of his own fans. He has since beaten drug addiction and cancer, emerging at the other side with an incredible life story
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"Chelsea are white! Chelsea are white! Hello! Hello!"

Thus went the racist ditty, set to a tune by Gary Glitter, of all people, sung by Chelsea fans in 1982. Parallels with recent vulgarities spewed forth on the Paris Metro are impossible to ignore. But this chant was not the offering of a small group of sub-normals, gleefully oblivious to the fact that their faces would be splashed across the next morning's front pages. It was sung loudly and proudly on the away terrace at Selhurst Park by hundreds of Chelsea fans and aimed at their own player, Paul Canoville, as he warmed up to come on as a substitute and become the West London club's first black player.


It was to get worse before it got better, but two years later the notorious Shed End stand, including a large number of those that had booed him, would be ringing out to chants of Canoville's name. Six years down the line Ken Monkou would become the first black recipient of Chelsea's player of the year award. A couple of decades on, Didier Drogba's penalty won the club their first European Cup.

To fans for whom the pain of a Champions League final defeat in Moscow is ranked alongside that of a Milk Cup semi-final loss against Sunderland – and there are many of them – Canoville's importance to the club is on a par with Drogba's. While one brought the Champions League trophy to Stamford Bridge, the other is credited with paving the way for the likes of Drogba, Marcel Desailly and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to play in SW6.

Yet Canoville, who today works with Chelsea in tackling racism and promoting inclusivity and education, could easily have missed this. Having endured racism from the stands, he was forced into early retirement through injury and suffered a subsequent slide into depression and drug addiction, compounded by the death of an infant child. After all this, it was cancer that almost finished him off.

Picture by: PA Images

Canoville grew up in Hillingdon, West London. The son of two Caribbean émigré parents, his father walked out when he was aged two, leaving his disciplinarian mother to bring up two children alone in austere conditions. Finding it difficult to engage at school, football provided an escape. However, it seemed the chance of a professional career had passed him by until, in late 1981, second-division Chelsea signed the 19-year-old from non-league Hillingdon Borough. A gifted left-winger with the sort of pace and trickery that would normally earn instant fan-favourite status, he soon began turning heads with his performances in the reserves.


"When I started I found it kind of easy. In the reserves I was man of the match most games. I was scoring goals, making goals; it was great. All that time I was thinking that being a professional was gonna be hard – but is was really easy," he says.

With his confidence high, the instinctive showman yearned for the opportunity to show off his talents in the first team. That opportunity came after four months when John Neal, the Chelsea manager, added him to the squad to face Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.

"I was so excited, I was ready for it. Getting to the ground on the coach on the day, even that was exciting. It was the first time I'd ever seen a coach with tables, a toilet, everything! I'd only ever been on one coach, a 52-seater that took me to Margate as a little kid. It was like, 'Bloody hell, this is like a flat or an apartment!'"

Canoville had been named as the side's substitute. He took his place on the bench and began to soak up the atmosphere, and the fact he was about to fulfil his childhood dream.

"I was watching the game, hearing all the cheering and thinking, 'This is good, this is really great'. It was a case of watching the players I might be against. Watching their right-back, because I was playing left wing, I was thinking, 'Man, I'm gonna roast this geezer, let me get on!'

"And then, with 12 minutes left, 'Canners, go and warm up!' Fuckin' yeah! Come on then!

"So I went and warmed up, and I started hearing this abuse, this racist abuse. I thought, 'Fucking hell, what's that? Is that Crystal Palace fans trying to put me off?' I kept warming up, just stretching, and it really got intense. It got louder and it really was nasty and I thought, 'Is nobody saying nothing here?!'


"I got really angry and I turned around, and that's when I was really shocked. Because it wasn't the Crystal Palace fans, it was my own fans. I couldn't believe that – my own fans? They don't even know me."

As Canoville prepared to enter the fray, a chorus of "We don't need the nigger" reverberated from the away end and bananas were thrown in his direction. Once on the pitch the abuse continued, his every touch booed by Chelsea supporters. Stunned and wounded, Canoville hugged the wing and made no inroads to the game.

"I stayed more or less on the byline. I kept hearing the abuse behind my back. The ball came to me, I gave it right back. I didn't do nothing, my confidence was gone. I was drained from the abuse I received. I couldn't wait for the referee to blow his whistle."

The booing of black players was nothing new; depressingly, it had almost become the norm in English football. Booing one's own black players, however, was not.

READ MORE: The "Gypsy" Football Club That Other Teams Refuse to Play

But Chelsea were a club with a reputation for their notorious hooligan following; their fans had been banned from traveling to away matches in 1977 and opposition black players could expect a rough ride at Stamford Bridge. Canoville's good fortune at being picked up by a league side was matched by the misfortune of joining a club at its nadir, both on the pitch and in the stands.

In Canoville's first full season at the club, Chelsea would finish in their lowest ever league position, narrowly avoiding relegation to the third tier of English football. In some respects, the club's changing fortunes and identity mirrored those of the country. The upright and gentlemanly Chelsea of the 1950s had been usurped by the glamour of the King's Road as the club became the embodiment of Swinging-Sixties London, with colourful partisan crowds high on mod and reggae packing Stamford Bridge.


But, just as Britain faced economic instability during the 1970s, so too were Chelsea plunged into the red by an over-ambitious ground redevelopment which, combined with atrocious board-room handling of player and manager dealings, saw the club knocked from its perch. Mod gave way to skinhead, and the hooliganism of over-exuberant teens looking for a ruck gave way to the hooliganism of organised firms looking to do harm. Meanwhile, Chelsea slipped into the second division and away form the eye of the cameras, soon falling prey to extremist groups recognising that terraces of disaffected youths could provide fertile recruiting grounds. Outside Stamford Bridge, as at selected other stadiums, skinheads would sell copies of Bulldog, the National Front's youth-targeted rag. By the early 1980s, with unemployment well on its way to the three million mark, there were plenty of alienated youngsters at football grounds for them to prey on.

This was the maelstrom into which Canoville had been cast. It was difficult for him to reconcile the joy of breaking into league football with the reality of his situation.

"I was thinking, 'is this the kind of greeting I'm gonna get all the time? Do I really wanna play here? Do I really want to play for Chelsea?"

Football had a racism problem, but the sport was burying its head in the sand. There were no support networks and a scarcity of role models. But with encouragement from the manager and the backing of the club, Canoville resolved to carry on and let his feet do the talking.


"John Neal said to me, 'Look, you put it to 'em, show 'em how good you are. I know you can do it.' It took some people to encourage me, but I enjoyed that because it gave me a task: to shut them up, to show them how good I was. I wasn't going to allow anyone to get in the way of my dream. It's all I lived for.

"But that weren't that easy, man. It was nearly two and a half years that [abuse] was going on. Even when I scored, for those fans, they would say it didn't count because I was black; that's the ignorance of them."

Stories abound of groups of supporters refusing to celebrate goals scored by Canoville. A common tale, perhaps apocryphal, is that an element of the club's support would sit in pubs across from Stamford Bridge before matches until the team sheets became available. Were Canoville's name on those sheets, they would remain in the pub.

My mum's stubborn and I think that's where I get it from

"It was worse playing at home. From the dugout, we used to have to run out to the right [to warm up], and the fans in the East Stand Lower were the same notorious fans that were giving me abuse away. So I'm running straight past them and they're shouting, 'Nigger sit down! Where you going, you black…' That weren't no confidence booster for me at all! When I got on the pitch, my mind was saying, 'I need to show them right away, not take time to get in to the game, I need to show them what I can do.'"


Where did Canoville find the strength to carry on in the face of such adversity?

"My mum's stubborn and I think that's where I get it from. When she came over from the Caribbean, what she had to bear… I don't think I could have taken what she did. She worked in hotels, in the basement doing laundry. She applied to become a maid and was told that there were no openings. Then she found out one of the white girls that was working with her went for the job and got the position. My mum doesn't leave it there, she goes and says, 'Well hold on, you told me there wasn't a job, why's this girl got it?' She was told that 'you can't be seen [by customers]' - 'What do you mean?' she asks. 'Because you're black'. My mum just gets up and says, 'Well keep your job' and goes and finds the next one.

"But back then, you can imagine how hard it was to get a job for a young black woman. She just moved on, kept pursuing work. So it was a case of thinking I had to just get on with it."

He was aided by supportive team-mates, who he still speaks of with great affection. Relief from matchday travails came at training and from that much-maligned beast, banter, then still more Monty Python than anything peddled by Dapper Laughs. The club, however, was slow to publicly act on racism.

"We had fun. There was banter. I imagine there's banter at any club, but the banter we had . . . oh mate! It was good. The boys were supportive; I loved it with them. For me, that was the enjoyment. I loved getting up in the morning and going in to training.


"But I think at the same time, Chelsea didn't do as much as they could. And they didn't know how to, let's understand that. We didn't have the organisations back then, like Kick It Out and Show Racism The Red Card. So I was on my own, just taking it day by day, getting on with it and trying to win them over."

The gloom was lifting from the club and hostility was softening in the stands as Chelsea progressed to the Second Division title, aided by new signings such as Pat Nevin and Kerry Dixon. In December, Canoville scored a hat-trick against Swansea, and the Shed began to sing his name. But if home matches were no longer the daunting experiences they had been, Chelsea's away support could still make his life miserable. Matters came to a head, once more, at Crystal Palace. Almost exactly two years after his debut, Canoville was again booed by his own supporters at Selhurst Park.

An intervention was needed, and it came from an unlikely source. Nevin, still only 20 years old and in his first season at the club, used his post-match interviews to address the matter. He refused to discuss the game, talking only about the "disgusting" treatment Canoville received. This may sound like a standard reaction, but at the time it was rare for any player, black or white, to stick their head above the parapet and address the issue.

At Chelsea's next home game, Nevin and Canoville's names were sung as the players ran out. The club too began to take action. Their chairman, Ken Bates, said that he intended to "persecute and harass" the National Front presence at Chelsea and expel them from the ground.


READ MORE: The Day England's Footballers Gave the Nazi Salute

The hard line appeared to be having an affect, but Canoville says the greatest change, and the moment from which he truly felt accepted and appreciated by the fans, came the following season after his blistering performance in a Milk Cup semi-final replay at Hillsborough. The visitors found themselves 3-0 down at half time. Canoville came on for the start of the second half and promptly scored after 11 seconds, with his first touch of the ball. Chelsea pulled level and then, fed by Dixon, Canoville gave his side the lead. There was still time for a Sheffield Wednesday equaliser and another replay (which Chelsea won), but on that night, in his opinion, Canoville arrived.

"After that game, we came and played at home against Watford. Luther Blisset and John Barnes were playing. Luther got the ball down the right and I tracked him and gave him one serious tackle. I got up and the Shed started singing 'Canoville! Canoville!' And that was it, you know, it was like that every time from then. When I was sub, I could feel that they wanted my input. 'Yeah, come on! Get Canners on!' It was nice to hear.

Changes were occurring in the stands and in society. The National Front's fortunes were on the wane and the club's efforts to banish them from Stamford Bridge were bearing fruit. The Bulldog sellers disappeared, to be replaced by Trotskyites selling copies of News Line, the publication of the Workers' Revolutionary Party. While there would be sporadic outbreaks of hooliganism as the decade progressed, Stamford Bridge was on its way to becoming an inclusive place once again.


The game against Sheffield Wednesday was also significant on a personal level for Canoville. His father, whom he had not seen for 20 years, had been in touch and the two arranged to meet that evening. His father would be in the stands to witness the performance.

"All this time, all I wanted was for my mum and my dad to see how good I was. When we was kids the parents used to come [to games] to support, but not mine. And I was man of the match most of the time. I'm getting praise from other players' families, but I wanted my dad or my mum to be there to see how good I was."

The following season, 85/86, Chelsea mounted a title challenge. However, for Canoville there was to be a spanner, or rather a golf club, in the works. After an away game he became involved in a spat with a team-mate. The player, whom Canoville does not wish to mention, took serious offence at the matter, and later came after Canoville and attacked him with a golf club. It wasn't their first bust up, and with Canoville being the more junior player, the club decided to transfer list their winger.

It was heart-wrenching, but not the worst thing to have happened in his career. Canoville was philosophical and accepted it as part of the professional game. Rejecting a move to First Division-bound Millwall ("Can you imagine?"), he dropped down a tier to join Reading. After a bright start, Canoville suffered an horrific knee injury, "One of the worst the doctor had ever seen," he says. He fought to recover and returned to action the following season, but he was only ever one tackle away from a career-ending knock. It came after eight games back and, aged only 25, he was forced to retire from the professional game.


"I think that, when I retired, it dawned on me what I'd been through and the emotion started to affect me. I did get depression. I couldn't play football no more and I was in denial."

His boots hung up, the weight of everything that had happened finally hit Canoville. With no idea what to do with his life and facing the end of his football dream, depression set in.

Canoville continued to live the high life, despite lacking the funds to do so. On one night out a friend passed him what he thought was a joint, but the instant sensation upon inhaling was not what he expected; it was crack. After initially panicking, thinking he was in for some insane rollercoaster rush, he found himself enjoying the high, and wanting more.

Crack just mellowed me, made me forget things going on

"Things got on top – your mortgage, your bills – and that's where the drugs came in. Crack just mellowed me, made me forget things going on, made me forget that period of time. But the same shit was still there. And it changed me as a person as well; the character was all gone, I wasn't laughing, I wasn't a joker as usual. I started to hide, made excuses for not going out, I wasn't looking after myself. It really took control and that's the thing about this: it takes control."

Canoville was by now working as a delivery driver, while still earning money playing football part-time at lower levels, but most of the time "couldn't be bothered to go." Attempts were made to get clean, but he would soon be knocked off track completely, sinking to his lowest point.


In 1995 Canoville's girlfriend, Tracey, was due to give birth to their second child, Tye. A complicated love life would see Canoville father 11 children by 10 women. But he had always promised, to himself at least, to settle down with the first woman with whom he had two children.

"Tye was everything I was looking for. But when he was born he had trouble and he couldn't breathe. The doctors told us a major operation was needed; we said 'yeah, we're prepared to do that'. They said that he'd need 24-hour care; we were up for that, too. And then they said they couldn't operate, he wasn't strong enough. They told us he had 10 days.

"I had to give him insulin injections every four hours. For nine days I stayed with him. I watched him take his last breath in my arms . . ."

Distraught, Canoville turned to the only thing he could: crack. He realised the need for change in his life, but first he had to pick himself up from the floor. A helping hand came from a former apprentice at Chelsea, Simon Chandler, after a chance meeting. With his help, Canoville entered rehab. Part of his treatment involved attending counselling sessions, though this was not immediately to his liking.

"The way I was brought up, it wasn't about sharing your problems; I wasn't sharing it with nobody. This guy's coming in asking, 'How are you feeling?' What do you mean how am I feeling? 'So, why are you here?' Why do you think I'm here? I didn't understand it."


A new counsellor was assigned, one, like Canoville, from a Caribbean background, and progress was made. "I gave him some stick and he gave me some as well. But you know what? He got through to me. He taught me about myself and I had to listen. We got on. I looked forward to talking to him."

Canoville with a team of fellow Chelsea old boys. Picture by: PA Images

Counselling helped Canoville come to terms with his demons and he describes the process as the best thing that ever happened to him. He managed to get clean.

There was a sting in the tail, however. In 1996 he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, an aggressive form of blood cancer. It was a development that Canoville admits at least some blame for, acknowledging that his crack use had affected his immune system and left him more susceptible to such an illness. He underwent intensive and debilitating treatment and eventually got the all-clear, but it was touch and go.

Healthy again, there was still the small matter of working out what to do with his life. Around that time Chelsea got in touch with their ex-player and informed him of their Education Through Football project, asking him to talk with schoolchildren about his experiences.

Canoville was dismissive, doubting that children so young would have any idea who he was, let alone be interested in what he had to say. But he obliged and, to his amazement, the pupils hung on his every word. He thought they were bored until a teacher explained that they're only that quiet when interested.


"I kept going to these schools and they kept listening to me. After a while someone said to me, 'Canners, man, why don't you become a teacher's assistant?' I didn't have the qualifications, but they said, 'You don't need qualifications, what you need is knowledge. And the way you talk to them, they look up to you, they're inspired.'"

Canoville realised that he had something to offer. He decided to take the advice and apply for a teaching assistant job. After overcoming one last battle – his shyness at writing a CV for the first time, one that was not exactly sparkling in the 'employment history' section – he attended an interview and was offered the job immediately.

"I walked out the door and I cried. I called my mum and said, 'I've done it! I got a job in a school!' She said, 'I'm so proud of you'. And I said, 'God mum, you've never ever said that before!'

"It was the best thing in my life, going back to school and helping out these kids."

"People have come up and apologised to me"

He then set about writing his celebrated autobiography, Black and Blue. Published in 2008, it won the best autobiography category at the British Sports Book Awards.

Today he runs Motivate To Change, delivering workshops in schools, community groups and prisons. He can be seen regularly at Stamford Bridge, signing autographs and soaking up the attention from supporters young and old. Some even come to say sorry.

"People have come up and apologised to me, and I wasn't sure how to react. At a Champions League game a guy came up and said, 'Look, I was one of them that racially abused you. I was with my Dad, and I followed my Dad, because I didn't know better. I was stupid. But I make sure that my kids know better and I just want to apologise and say sorry'. That's big, to come up after that amount of time and say that."

Having progressed to such a point, then, must make the Paris episode all the more galling. While he admits to being hurt by the event, it is impossible for one who has witnessed such a change in the game's approach to racism, and the speed with which Chelsea reacted, not to put the events into perspective.

"It was upsetting to hear what happened out there, because of the work I do and the work Chelsea have done throughout the years [in fighting racism]. Things have changed, and it's good. That situation on the Metro, my question is were they real Chelsea supporters? It still tarnishes the club's name, but Chelsea stepped up to the plate, they didn't drag their feet, they tried to sort it."

Despite everything, Canoville is still a passionate supporter of the club (he signs off correspondence as 'Canners CFC'). Watching him shake hands with countless fans on the Fulham Road before games, I ask him if he's finally found the acceptance and affection he was seeking all his life. "It's nice to be recognised," he smiles.