It’s been almost 30 years since Paul Canoville, the first black player to play for Chelsea, retired from professional football but he remains a very busy man. Paul spends much of his time doing charitable work across the globe with The Paul Canoville Foundation, as well as the Guy Mascolo Football Charity.

Away from his educational work, Paul helps out in the hospitality department at Stamford Bridge and even finds time to respond to the frequent media requests to tell his captivating life story.

Last month, Paul was kind enough to speak to Paul Mortimer, Kick It Out’s Professional Player Engagement Manager, about a number of important issues including his charitable foundation, as well as his experiences suffering racism at Chelsea in the 1980s. In the third of our exclusive series, Paul Canoville talks:

Battling Drug Addiction and Cancer

“After coming out of football, going through what I went through with the drugs, going through the experience of having cancer, it’s made me what I am today. I know it’s made me what I am today.”

For Paul Canoville, coming to terms with retirement from professional football at the age of 24 was never going to be easy. After just five years at Chelsea, a persistent knee injury forced him to hang up his boots, leaving him out of work and facing financial difficulties.

“There was a lot going on,” Paul recalls. “At the time I probably didn’t even know myself. I didn’t say much to anyone.”

“People have got to understand, when you’ve played professional for five or six years – that’s work. I’m training from nine to 12, 1pm. It was a gig. That’s for six years – it’s a routine.

“So now to leave that – I’ve got bills, I’ve got to find a job that I can do quite easily, that suits me and that can pay my bills. I don’t like working in the office, so it’s got to be outside.”

Despite struggling to find work, Paul’s party lifestyle showed no signs of slowing down.

“I’m still living the high life, raving out. But I’m not recognising the problem. I still think I can do that and get up for work. I’m coming home at three, four in the morning – but I’ve got to get up at five to go to work.

“That don’t work. I’m making up excuses, putting on voices to my boss, saying ‘oh, I can’t make it’. Eventually, you’re told ‘you’re finished, Paul, you’re sacked.’ Once again, I paid the price for not listening to my Mum and not taking my education seriously.”

There were clearly deeper problems driving Paul’s self-destructive behaviour, but recognising those issues was a challenge in itself.

“I had to go and motivate myself, and I wasn’t able to do it,” he says. “I was in a low period, I didn’t realise I was depressed. I was depressed.  I just wasn’t that happy-go-lucky guy anymore.

“Next thing you know, I’m arguing. The slightest thing you say to me, I’m jumping on your back. Why?”

Paul had people around him trying to make sense of what he was going through, but he was not a man who was comfortable asking for help.

“Around me, I had my family – Mum didn’t understand, June (his sister) did understand but you’ve got me there in denial.”

“You don’t say anything. You’d see a friend in the street and I might have looked a bit rough, but all I’d say is ‘yeh man, everything’s cool’. I’d lie to them. But they wouldn’t know any different.

“So there wasn’t any support at all, which I didn’t know at the time because I was in denial, I was hiding.”

“It was a lonely existence. Most of the time I stayed inside, watching TV. You’d sleep through the day and then by night, you’re fully awake. And that’s where you’ve got to find something. And that’s where the drugs started.”

Paul was now going out every night of the week, burning the candle at both ends and spending a lot of money.

“I wouldn’t have known where to look for support, at that time. Being brave enough to even ask anybody for that help. I don’t want anyone to know. But people do know, they know you’re on drugs. And I know they know, but I had to play that bravado.”

Unable to see a life outside of football, Paul made a failed attempt to take his own life.

“I took tablets – 25 of them and fell asleep, not to wake up. I couldn’t play football. I couldn’t find the structure. I couldn’t work.

“There were plenty of times that I wanted my life to end because I was embarrassed, I was ashamed. The bravado was so much I couldn’t take it anymore. I just wanted it to be finished.”

After Paul’s son, Tye, tragically passed away in infancy and with his life spiralling out of control, he entered a rehabilitation facility to overcome his addiction to crack cocaine.

“The person who’s got a drug habit, he’s the only one who can help himself,” Paul declares. “As much as you can help a person, that person has to help himself. He has to be ready. And that’s what I was. But I had to find that out for myself.”

Rehabilitation was unsurprisingly one of the toughest challenges Paul had ever faced, but after making some real progress in his first month at the facility, his task was about to be made much harder.

“I started to feel some pain. It was waking me up every night at 2am. What’s going on? And the sweat, I’ve never seen more coming from me. For two weeks, I was taking the pain. I was taking these tablets, and because the pain was going, I felt alright.

“But eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore and asked to see the doctor.”

Without telling Paul what was wrong, the doctors sent him to the hospital immediately for an operation. When he woke up, he was informed that he’d been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a form of blood cancer.

Paul expressed his disbelief: “How can I have cancer? I’ve only just retired. There’s nothing wrong with me. I was still playing football! The doctor told me it happens to men between the ages of 30 and 45. What? I still couldn’t accept it.

“I was 30-something and I felt 50. I couldn’t move. That’s when they told me I needed chemotherapy. I said ‘yeh okay, that’s good’. I thought it was a tablet.”

But the side effects of Paul’s treatment were severe. His immune system was decimated and he began to lose his hair.

“They told me my hair was going to drop out and I didn’t believe them,” he recalls. “For two weeks, I was checking my hair all over. I told myself ‘they don’t know that they’re talking about’. Until one day, I had a bath and started shampooing my hair. Jesus – clumps!

“I scared myself looking in the mirror. I put my hat on and called my barber to ask if I could come in. I’m in there and I don’t want to take my hat off! ‘Paul, what’s wrong?’ he asks me. ‘I’ve got cancer.’ ‘Why didn’t you say anything?’ he asks.”

Paul didn’t want pity and similar to his experience battling drug addiction, he didn’t want to ask for support.

“I had to realise that the offers for help were sincere. You do need help. You can’t go through it on your own. I was fighting against it until I couldn’t. I couldn’t go to the shop and carry a bag. It was like the whole of my bones were hurting.

“I didn’t accept it the first time (having cancer). When I shaved my head, I didn’t go out. I stayed inside. My head bald? And people seeing that?”

Thankfully, Paul recovered and went into remission but most importantly, he began to take his health far more seriously.

“I’ve had cancer a second time (in 2004), I’ve had it a third time (in 2010). And I knew right away something was wrong. I know now if there’s anything wrong, I go to the doctor’s right away. Not next week, not next month. I’m seen right away.

“Men being men, we’re frightened to check on things. When you catch a cold or you’ve got some pain and you think that everything’s alright – it’s not alright. Have a check-up.”

Sound advice from a man who has been through it all.

Photo (above) courtesy of Chelsea FC and Hugh Hastings, Chelsea FC Photo Archives Manager