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Canoville, Paul (1981-1986)


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Paul Canoville (1981-1986)

Written by Loz in September 2007

Paul Canoville, officially classified as Chelsea’s first black player although I believe that isn’t actually true, I have a feeling in the back of my mind, (probably head lice) that we did have a black player on our books many many many moons previously. However what I can say without any doubt is that no Chelsea player has ever suffered so much vitriol at the hands of his own fans. Some younger fans who have seen the likes of Makelele, Desailly, Gullit, Eddie Newton, Gallas, SWP, Frankie Sinclair etc etc be taken to the hearts of the Chelsea faithful may find it hard to believe that only 25 years ago we had a situation where some fans even republished league tables which erased any goals Canoville scored.

At this juncture it is worth pointing out that this wasn’t all Chelsea fans and it wasn’t an issue restricted to Chelsea fans either. Racism was rife in the game and the country however that doesn’t excuse the behaviour of a large minority.

canoville_paul_1984_gh_r.jpg He was born in Hillingdon on March 4th 1962 and started his career in non league football with local team Hillingdon Borough. In December 1981, at the age of 19 he signed for Chelsea and on April 12th, 1982 he made his debut in 1-0 away win at Crystal Palace. A debut which must have shocked the living hell out of him. In his time at Hillingdon he had never encountered an issue with racism although he had encountered racism in other areas of his life. In fact when he was offered a professional contract at Chelsea (after a six month trial) some of his friends tried to warn him that we were a club with a reputation for having links to some far right movements. Canoville ignored their warnings, the lure of a professional contract being too much to turn down. In an interview given much later he talked of his time as a young lad playing football on his estate:

'In Southall, the two 'coloured' families in the neighbourhood were on the estate. I was the only black boy playing 'World Cup' against the white boys, who I classed as friends. They were calling me 'Golliwog', but I took it. They were older than me, I couldn't do anything. 'I was 10 or 11 and it hurt, but they were 13, 14. They were mostly supporters of QPR and Chelsea. I had to let my football do the talking.

I remember once we were playing outside the park gates at eight o'clock, the park was closed and we were using the gates as a goal. I was playing well and one of the boys was calling me names. Another black guy was there and he couldn't believe it. He called the guy over and told me that if any of those guys abused me again, I should let him know. He was a Chelsea fan. None of them troubled me again.'

Sadly his first experience with Chelsea fans en masse was not to be so supportive which takes us back to the Crystal Palace debut. These were the days when you were only allowed to name one sub and this day in April was to see Canoville take the position on the Chelsea bench. When he came on the roof of the stadium nearly came off, but not in support for a new youngster trying to make his name on the game. On the contrary it was a wall of abuse, it was the sound of bigots on a ferocious scale and it was accompanied by the customary bananas and monkey chants. Canoville said of that game:

'It was so full in your face and it was our own fans. I was playing for their club and they were giving me abuse. I was thinking if I just walked outside the gates, what would they do to me? It was frightening. 'What really hurt so much was the bananas thrown in front of me. I was thinking, ******* hell, do you really hate me that much? Do you really not want me to do well for the club?'

and added:

'When your name's called out before the game and all you can hear is "Ooooh ooooh ooooh?", that ain't a confidence booster. In the dressing room, the lads were saying "come on Canners, do your business", but when I got out there and heard that, my shoulders dropped. People said to ignore it, but you can't. When you get the ball and your own fans are booing you, how can you ignore it?'

john%20neal.jpg Key members of the club took time out to encourage Paul including then manager John Neal and there were public shows of support from Ken Bates (who revealed that the club had received three letters for Paul after his debut which had razor blades in the flaps) and a number of team mates, in particular Pat Nevin.

Canoville, to his credit, held his head high and decided to face the racists head on. Whilst many others may have walked (and understandably so) he decided not to be beaten into submission. 1982/83 was his first full season for the club and it was a pretty bleak one for Chelsea in general. Relegation to the old Division Three was a real threat and Canoville was brought into the first team fairly late into the season to aid in our battle against the drop. How we avoided relegation that season will always be a mystery to me (other than recognising the efforts of David Speedie) however Canoville also chipped in with a couple of goals against Carlisle and an appearance in the massive win at Bolton which ensured we beat the drop.

thomas_mickey_19850316_gh_r.jpg This still wasn’t enough to shut up the racists and the abuse carried on into the beginning of the 1983/84 season. It wasn’t until about Christmas time of 1983 that Canoville felt that the level of abuse started to diminish. He scored a hatrick against Swansea and later said of that time:

'I'm proud of that hat-trick. The match ball is still in my mum's cabinet with the signatures of the players that day. The abuse was getting less and by this time I was ignoring it. I wouldn't have still been there if I hadn't.'

Chelsea were on the hunt for promotion that season and Canoville lost his place on the left wing when Mickey Thomas (start whistling the theme song to ‘Porridge’) was signed in January 1984.

By this time there were two other black players trying to make an impact at Chelsea, Keith Jones made his debut in March 1983 and Keith Dublin did likewise just over a year later. It was when the three of them played together in a reserve match at Millwall that Canoville, for the first time, allowed his rage at the racists to get the better of him. Before the kick-off he was warming up and looked into the crowd to see two fans slip Klu Klux Klan style hoods over their heads. When the game kicked off his temper was at boiling point and he explained later:

'I lost it, I was going for ball, man, everything that game. The referee saw what was happening and asked our manager to substitute me.'

nevin_pat_19840827_gh_r.gif By now promotion was looming large on the horizon and Chelsea were playing Palace. Canoville came on as a sub to replace Mickey Thomas and before Nevin scored the only goal in a 1-0 win the racist abuse was clearly audible. After the match the press wanted to talk to Nevin about his goal and the possibility of promotion. Nevin largely ignored the questions and took the opportunity to demand an end to the racist abuse. It was the first time a white player had ever been so vocally supportive and Canoville was clearly grateful:

'Pat Nevin and I just got on,' says Paul. 'I always felt comfortable with him. Nobody had ever had the bottle to say anything before and I never expected it. I was shocked. I had support from the team, but not like that.'

Chelsea won promotion that year with a thumping 5-0 win over old enemies Leeds United. Canoville scored the fifth goal after coming off the bench with a warning in his ear from manager John Neal ‘whatever you do, don't score’ – the warning being due to the fact that Chelsea fans kept invading the pitch and Neal was worried something may happen to Canoville if the ‘wrong’ fans got hold of him.

In our return to the top flight Canoville was never a regular first team player and it was from his regular role as a sub hat he took part in what is undeniably the most memorable game of his Chelsea career. Both from a football perspective and, as it turns out, a personal one as well.

It was the replay of the League Cup quarter final against Sheffield Wednesday and Paul’s father, who he had not seen since the age of two, was living in Sheffield. They had spoken on the phone a few times and Paul, deciding it was time to meet again, arranged for tickets for him. They met briefly before the match and by half time we were getting thumped 3-0. At half time Colin Lee has to be withdrawn through injury, Dale Jasper was moved into a centre half role and Canoville brought on. Chelsea kicked off the second half, the ball was played back to Joey Jones who sent it airborne without, it has to be said, a huge amount of craft! The Wednesday centre half fluffed his lines trying to pass it back to the keeper and Canoville nipped in to knock in the first of the comeback. Mickey Thomas then made it 3-2 from a Canoville assist, Kerry Dixon bagged the equaliser and then Canoville got the fourth, and what we thought was the winner, after being played in by Dixon. Then Doug Rougvie (WHY DOUG?????) conceded a terrible penalty which Mel Sterland converted to make it 4-4.

After the game Canoville met his father properly and arranged for him to visit London to visit Paul and his sister. In the second replay a 90th minute Canoville corner was headed in by Mickey Thomas to secure Chelsea a 2-1 victory.

In the Autumn of 1986 John Neal was replaced by John Hollins and Canoville found first team games even harder to come by.

canoville%20today.gif A £50,000 transfer fee saw him leave Chelsea for Reading who were playing in the old Division Two at the time. It soon became apparent he was far too good for that level of football however within two months of joining Reading his career was ended by a brutal David Swindlehurst challenge which managed to dislocate his knee, tear cartilage and rupture his cruciate ligament all at the same time). He was only 24 when he had to retire and in August 1988 Chelsea played Reading in a testimonial for him.

With a very large family to support (he has 10 children by 10 different woman) Paul soon found his debts mounting and he took up a driving job with Group 4 before having to sell his house to pay off some the debt. He did appear one last time for Chelsea in Kerry Dixon’s 1995 testimonial.

In 1996 he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease and underwent a both chemotherapy and radiotherapy. For a while he seemed to have beaten the disease however he was to suffer a serious relapse in May 1997 when he is reported to have come close to dying.

_1253012_rocastle_new300.jpg He was given a private room by the NHS and it was in this room that he saw with his mother and watched Chelsea win the 1997 FA Cup final. Fortunately Paul was to make another recovery (sadly the same could not be said for David Rocastle who died of the same illness, it was Rocky’s death that really made Paul realise how serious his illness had been.)

However in 2004 the cancer returned again and Paul went through a further session of chemotherapy which saw him lose three stone. Again he battled through it and came out the other side.

canoville%20and%20harewoord%20racism%20c In 2006 he played at left back (well he is getting on a bit now!) against Arsenal for a Chelsea Old Boys side.

He was far from the best left winger the world has ever seen and he wasn’t even with us for all that long however for what he has battled against both on and off the park he, for me, can hold his head up high amongst any other ex Chelsea player we consider a legend.

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