In the last forty years, the face of English football has changed drastically.
The Premier League transformed the game into a multi-billion pound business, while more players than ever represent an array of ethnic backgrounds. Chelsea, for example, now have ten black players in their squad, but back in 1981, there was just one.
Paul Canoville holds the distinction of being Chelsea’s first ever black player, arriving from non-league side Hillingdon Borough. For the boy whose parents separated when he was two, while spending three months in a youth detention centre himself, football always played a significant role in his life.
“I was always into sports, and that was my main area in life,” Canoville tells me. “I wasn’t a really troublesome lad; I just did things for the sake of it. The dream was to be a professional footballer – where it would take me, who I played for, I didn’t know.”
Canoville’s debut came a few months after joining Chelsea – waiting four months was nothing when fulfilling a lifelong dream. When he was brought on against Crystal Palace in April 1982, what should have been a landmark moment quickly turned sour.
“I thought, ‘yeah, this is it. You’ve been waiting for this day’,” he says. “Then you hear all this racism gestured at me. I thought, ‘Wow, Crystal Palace fans are a bit dark’. But I turned around, and found it was my own fans that were racially abusing me. That was difficult, really difficult to take.
“To receive this racism shouted at you by your own fans, it just drained me. I was so excited – that excitement just dropped. I didn’t move. I just couldn’t move. This was the only time the changing room was quiet. My teammates had heard it, saw it, and couldn’t believe it.”
“It was like I had to play twice as better than my teammates to try and get accepted by the fans.”
Despite the development football has undergone in the last four decades, racism remains a persistent problem and a disgusting stain on the beautiful game. In the last season alone, Kick It Out shows that there were 184 reported cases of racism in the professional game, a stark increase of 67.3% from the previous year.
Canoville remains open about the challenges he faced, all because of the colour of his skin. He wrote an award-winning autobiography, Black and Blue, in 2008, detailing the struggles he endured throughout his footballing career and personal life.
“Joining Chelsea, I didn’t know the history at all,” he explains. “It was like I had to play twice as better than my teammates to try and get accepted by the fans. Going home from home games, I had to stay at the ground for at least two to three hours, just to let the fans go. That’s how scared I was. It was scary for a young black boy.”
He adds, “It was a thought period of, ‘What can I do to get them on my side? What do I have to do?’ I didn’t complain to anybody, because I thought if I complained to the authority above, they’d see me as, ‘He’s a troublemaker, get him out’. I wish I opened up a bit more at that time. It wasn’t because I was scared, it was just that I didn’t want to be seen as a complainer.”
In the past, Chelsea had a torrid reputation for racism, one which unfortunately affects their image today. “I love Chelsea, and I know Chelsea had that reputation,” he says. “Any racism incident, first thing: ‘It’s Chelsea Football Club’. Everybody has that at the tip of their tongue. Yes, they had that history. But I know there’s racism in every club.”
Canoville made 103 appearances for Chelsea, helping them earn promotion to the top flight in 1984. Yet there is no doubt when choosing his highlight in blue, as he reminisces over a Winter’s day at Hillsborough in 1985. The League Cup quarter-final at Sheffield Wednesday lives long in the memory – and not just for the football.
“I was in touch now with my dad for the first time, and he’s living in Sheffield,” Canoville recalls. “I’ve never had either of my parents see me play, so this was an opportunity to invite him. I was so nervous. I wasn’t even thinking about the game, I was thinking about meeting him.”
With Chelsea 3-0 down at half-time, Canoville came off the bench looking to make an impact. He scored within 11 seconds to ignite the comeback, adding another as they came back to draw 4-4. It was Canoville’s finest moment in his short-lived career, uniting with his father while simultaneously winning over Chelsea fans.
“To know my dad was there to see the performance, it couldn’t have come any better; [we] still talk to this day,” he continues. “The notorious Shed End were now shouting my name – never! If I’ve gone out at that time before, when they named the players, I got booed. Every time. From that game, I was definitely accepted. That was the game that changed everything for me at Chelsea.”
Since Canoville departed Stamford Bridge thirty-four years ago, Chelsea have undergone a revolution. The latest chapter of the modern era is arguably the most exciting yet, with club legend turned manager Frank Lampard in charge.
Lampard’s debut season was impressive, as he defied expectations at the helm. Chelsea finished fourth in the Premier League to secure Champions League football, while Lampard became the seventh Blues manager to reach the FA Cup Final in his first season.
“I’ll be really honest, I thought it was going to be too much for Lampard,” Canoville admits. “I thought he needs a bit more experience, but I like what he’s done. The young players that are coming through now – great. It’s a great opportunity, the youngsters are unbelievable. This is what I’ve loved what Lampard and Jody [Morris] have done.”
Despite hanging up his boots decades ago, Canoville’s story remains as inspirational as ever. It is one of courage, tenacity and empowerment, of a black boy from Southall pursuing his dreams and going on to play for Chelsea. However short yet sweet his career proved to be, his experience of overcoming adversity and rising above racism is one which resonates deeply today.
“I’m gutted it was a short period in my time as a professional footballer,” Canoville concludes. “I know there was a lot more I could’ve done, and gone far if given that opportunity. Football is a beautiful game, don’t get me wrong, but you just don’t realise the opportunity football gives you.”
I would like to say a huge thank you to Joel Mians for helping set up the interview, and to Paul for agreeing to the interview and making the time to speak to me. I am very grateful for the opportunity.