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 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 battle against cancer and drug addiction. In the second of our exclusive series, Paul Canoville talks:

Racism At Chelsea

Paul Canoville had virtually given up on making it as a professional footballer by 1981. Plying his trade at semi-professional outfit Hillingdon Borough, Paul had exhausted all routes to the top tier of English football.

“I just said – I’m not good enough. That’s what my thought process was. Because if I’m not picked as an apprentice, I’m probably not good enough.”

After turning down Wimbledon as a 17-year-old because the contract offered less than what he was earning on the dole, Paul had unsuccessful trials at West Brom and Southampton.

“I wanted to be an apprentice, that’s why I was going to all those clubs, but how it was at that time, nobody said nothing to you. You were there, they knew you were there – but nobody said anything to you.

“You’d have your week and on the last day, I’m waiting to see if it’s a yes or no, but nobody’s saying no and nobody’s saying yes. So you’re left in the air and you’re returning home.”

With Paul ready to accept a career at Hillingdon Borough, it was then that he had an invitation from Chelsea for a trial.

“But even there, it was the same factor,” he remarks.

“I went there for the week and the same thing – nobody said nothing. I’ve come back and I’m like – well boy, if I can’t make it there, that’s it.”

However, upon returning home, he received a call from Chelsea asking him back for a second week. After impressing Chelsea manager John Neil, Canoville was signed on a deal until the end of the 1981/82 season.

The winger had finally achieved his dream – but nothing was to prepare him for what was to happen next.

“I didn’t know the history of Chelsea, you’ve got to understand that. I knew nothing about them. I was a football fan, but the team I supported was Leeds. I’ve come to Chelsea and all I know is they don’t like Leeds.”

Canoville started off in the reserve team, and it was there that he quickly began to notice that his arrival had ruffled a few feathers amongst the playing staff.

“I noticed there was a clique of white midfielders. They had a clique. Don’t get me wrong – they said hello, but I’m being looked at because in the games I’m standing out.

“On the pitch, I’m learning – but I’m learning quickly. I’m scoring goals and soon, I’m called into the first team.

“And that’s where I felt it. The faces in the reserves dugout. That was the clique. They were all white. I was on the outside. Alright, they had a few black players, but they were youth players – they didn’t say much. But now Paul’s come in and he’s about, he’s on the right, he’s on the left.”

The ‘clique’ didn’t like Paul’s success and that was particularly clear when he’d play against the reserves for the first team.

“The dynamic changed completely,” he adds. “You noticed that.”

For a 20-year-old Paul, it was difficult to understand.

“I wanted to be accepted. I was a young lad, I wasn’t strong. To have all the boys’ support would have been important for me. I know those boys have come through the ranks together, but they’d still seen what I could do. They knew I deserved to be there.”

Yet despite the uncomfortable atmosphere underscored by racial tension around the training ground, far worse was to come for Paul on his debut for the first team against Crystal Palace,; a game that he’d been waiting all his life for.

“I’m excited, I’m raring to go, I’m ringing cousins, friends, my sister. I’m in the changing room with the first team, getting ready for the game and I’m involved now. The boys are all supporting me too, saying ‘well done Canners’, ‘good luck’, ‘get stuck in’.

“But it was an experience I didn’t expect. I honestly did not expect it to turn out like that at all.”

Paul spent much of the Palace game sitting on the bench, desperate to come on and show what he was capable of.

“I’m seeing this right-back and I’m telling you now – I know I can change this game. Get. Me. On. I’m buzzing and I’m looking at the manager, stomping my feet, making noise. Come on man! 80 minutes. 83 minutes. What does he expect me to do with seven minutes?”

But the amount of time Paul had to make an impact soon became the least of his worries, after manager John Neal sent him to warm up. Jogging down the touchline, he was immediately subjected to racist abuse.

“What a shock. That excitement was stopped. I mean like that,” Paul recalls.

“And I’m thinking - is that how they get on round here? I’ve turned round and it’s right in my face. I’m seeing the shirt. I’m seeing the scarf. You’re a Chelsea supporter and you’re calling me this?”

All of a sudden, Stamford Bridge was the last place Paul wanted to be.

“I was in slow motion. I wasn’t the same energetic man any more. I went on and hugged the touchline. I wasn’t going to do anything – I couldn’t do anything. My body was drained. I got the ball, took a touch and then gave it back. All that I was picturing that I was going to do this defender before – gone.”

After the game, the dressing room was silent.

“They couldn’t even come and say ‘Paul, are you alright?’ because they saw it. They heard it. It would have been silly for them to even think of asking that. That’s how bad it was.”

Paul was left isolated, with virtually no one at Chelsea willing to address the glaring issue in front of them.

“Nobody raised it with me. Only the Guvnor (John Neal) approached me. He said to me ‘I can’t imagine how you’re feeling, but these are the same ignorant people that are paying your wages. What do you want to do?’”

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