Chelsea's first black player delves into the dark side

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Much can be learnt from the past experiences of individuals who have fought hard to carve out a niche at the summit of their chosen discipline, and so I'm with Paul Canoville at e1 Grill, Whitechapel to talk about his life experiences.

The aroma emanating from the kitchen is punishing but we need to chat first before lunch. I’m hoping that sharing the ex-Chelsea winger’s story will play its part in understanding ourselves and learn from the past to move forward in the present.

On 12 April 1982, Paul Canoville became the first black player ever to play in a Chelsea shirt. Canoville's obvious ability on the field, fearlessness, quick feet, wizardry and dashing pace down the wing should have instantly made him a fan's favourite. However he was to suffer probably the worst racial abuse suffered by any player in his era. It was worse because it came from his own fans.

Paul’s childhood is a big part of his story. "My inspiration as a young man was the great Pele and the Three Degrees – Lawrie Cunningham, Brendan Batson and Cyril Regis. Lawrie was special and only recently I popped down to Brisbane Road to proudly see his recently unveiled plaque."

Canoville’s parents arrived in Britain after World War 2. It was a tough and dark time for them - “My parents were part of the ‘Windrush’ generation who came to Britain after World War 2 and they struggled to find acceptance. I had to grow up without the father figure I so needed to guide me through life’s perils and pitfalls that I needed to avoid as I grew up fast.”

In 2009 his luck took a turn for the better as his autobiography “Black and Blue” was named the Best Sports Autobiography of the year. Canoville is refreshingly open about the book: “I sought my mother's counsel as she featured heavily in it.

“I tell it how it was and the best thing to come out of it has been the countless number of people who have benefited enough from reading about my experiences to be inspired to change their lives for the better.”

Then there's the racism - Canoville suffered on his debut. He was called a “nigger,” a “wog,” monkey chants rained down from the terraces and a few bananas were chucked at him. It was carnival for the National Front.

"I hated warming up and prayed for mercy whenever I was a sub,” said Canoville.

This young man’s promising football career was shattered at the tender age of 24 after he suffered a horrific injury against Reading. I asked him about his best moment in the famous Blue shirt and a Cheshire cat grin beams out: “I came on as a substitute for Chelsea against Sheffield Wednesday in the quarter finals of the Milk Cup once. We were 3-0 down.”

Canoville’s entrance changed the game as he scored twice, with his first goal coming only 11 seconds after the restart.

“My father Vernon watched this game and I met him for the very first time after the match. It was a strange and emotional night, I had reconciled with my dad and hushed the racists all in one night. It was actually an amazing feeling.”

After retirement from the game his life changed dramatically. He developed an addiction to drugs which he battled to overcome. Three times Canoville contracted Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, an aggressive cancer, but in typical fashion he managed to fight it off and prevail every time.

He believes that retirement and lack of support and mentoring cost him dear: “Things went on a downward spiral from then – my career ended early and unfulfilled. I drifted after that as I knew nothing better.

“By 1996 I had lost my son Tye and I held him for nine days until he breathed his last in my arms. Tye's death broke something in me. It pushed me back into the abyss. The drink and drugs were embraced to dull the pain. But it was only temporary relief and the horror came back ten times worse."

Being at Chelsea had its ups and downs too - "It wasn't easy” said Canoville. “I'd replaced club legend and fans favourite Clive Walker and though I was immensely proud to be considered as a frontrunner to take over, I was under huge pressure."

Then there was the incident with a senior first teamer who Canoville knocked out clean after putting up with racist abuse whilst staying at the hotel. The next morning Canoville was given a warning that the situation would escalate and he was ordered to leave: “I was driven back to London alone by Norman Medhurst the ex-England Physiotherapist,” said Canoville. “I received a call not to report back to training. ‘Where do we go from here?’ I enquired.

“I was bombed out and was offered a transfer to Cold Blow Lane and Millwall." The thought of playing at the Den absolutely terrified Canoville and he was about to take a "step down" to join Frank McLintock at Brentford before a transfer to Reading, who had sold Kerry Dixon to Chelsea became imminent. Canoville joined the Royals soon after.

The new boy impressed at Reading but on 21 October 1986 during a game with Sunderland a tackle by ex-West Ham man Dave Swindlehurst led to a torn cartilage, dislocated knee and a rupture to the cruciate ligament. Canoville’s career was over at the tender age of 24.

After retirement Canoville fought a grueling daily battle: “I fought and beat Cancer three times, did the whole chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It was all a blur. Too much was happening too fast.

“My counselor was given a hard time. I fought him, ridiculed and mocked him. I saw, I heard, I didn't believe but he stuck in there and this led to a new ethos developing within me - respect.

“Working with my counselor gave me the impetus to go into rehab. I was at Liverpool Road, Holloway for a fortnight of rehab and came out feeling clean and refreshed. My burden was lightened and I left all the support I had as I felt I could handle it. I fell back into the pit, but rose again after another spell of rehab in Norwich. This time I came back, clued up and fresh headed. I found myself a nice place to stay in Victoria. Things were looking up.

“In 2004 Chelsea approached me to work with local schools. It was intriguing both ends and after a while I was encouraged to become a TA. I was horrified as I didn't have an education. I was told I didn't need one.”

Canoville applied for a Teaching Assistant post at Mathews Primary in Victoria. He rustled up a CV with a great deal of help - "I didn't know the next thing about computers and honestly I thought a CV was an honour from the Queen," he chuckles.

Canoville swept to success and was successful in the interview process: "It was the greatest of feelings and I admit I had a tear in my eye. I walked out randomly and screamed in pure happiness as I ran down the high street. It was like celebrating a winning goal in front of the Shed End.”

"Thank you Mr Canoville," was a term he became used to hearing, "I loved the way the pupils would utter it - a bit of politeness goes a long way and here I was doing something I loved, inspiring youngsters whilst learning a great deal about life from them."

Canoville spent five years at the school before leaving to take a break. "I called it my work, life balance thingy. I'd had a good innings and needed a change in direction."

Canoville met Rick Glanville and was asked about the possibility of sharing his life through the publication of an autobiography: "I thought, you're crazy, who would want to read about me."

Canoville was eventually convinced to take the necessary steps. He spoke to his ‘Ma’.

He said: "a lot of it was about her and I did the right thing by asking her for her blessing. I got the go ahead and was ready to go.

"I found talking to Rick Glanville easy and found myself opening up. The memories were stored in dark corners but still vivid. Some were dark and difficult, bringing about a series of emotions within me."

The book was an overwhelming success and was voted Sports Book of the year in 2009.

"I really thought someone was having me on and Jeremy Beadle would come up on stage and spoil it all," Canoville recalls.

“That success gave me a big break and I was inundated with offers of interviews, invitations and some work."

Unsurprisingly, Canoville, who won the Division Two Championship with Chelsea, now works as a Freelance Motivational/Inspirational Speaker delivering workshops to schools (KS2/KS3/KS4 pupils) prisons and community groups regarding his experiences as the first black professional footballer for Chelsea. He deals with real issues: “I touch on aspects of racism and bullying and bullying.”

These days Canoville, through his freelancing, shares his experiences to motivate young people to change. Canoville delivers workshops in schools throughout the United Kingdom, highlighting the importance of education; and discussing with school pupils the issues around bullying and racism: “I have developed my knack of storytelling by making use of my own animated film and also an interview with BBC’s Football Focus in 2006 to introduce children to my experiences as a player with Chelsea Football Club in the 1980s.”

For the last nine years Canoville’s work has also taken him abroad, where he had the opportunity to work with students in Germany, Geneva and more recently, India. He is after all a gifted communicator, witty, with an answer for almost any question ready on the tip of his tongue.

Canoville particularly enjoys delivering workshops in prisons – where he shares with inmates; the challenges he faced on and off the pitch, and how he successfully overcame racism, drug addiction, crime, cancer and family issues to bring about a great change in his life.

Canoville’s story is about overcoming the marked and painful bruises that life can bring and about overcoming the dark times and in “Black and Blue” he tells his story in-depth.

He is passionate about his work and his intimate knowledge of the pitfalls that exist for young people gives him an amazing advantage in making a difference to vulnerable youngsters faced with many of the temptations he too has had to deal with.

His workshops are informative and encouraging, and always very well received by the target audience; pupils/students, disadvantaged groups (such as young offenders), as well as the general public: “I now work closely with KS2 & KS3 pupils, providing support and inspiration through my work. I engage well with the youth, and volunteer my services weekly to the community utilising my experience as a former Teacher’s Assistant.”

Canoville is also employed by Chelsea Football Club through their celebrated educational programme offered to schools in the local area.

“I have found that in my engagement with such audiences I am able to discuss the importance of education, and the effects of bullying and racism. The goal is self-help! If you can help yourself you have the tools to always do better.

"We challenge self-limiting belief and promote education. We have links to education providers and potential employers. I do this because I have first-hand experience of adversity and know what it takes to get back up.”

It’s easy to see why. Canoville is a magnet – he is a gifted communicator who will have you laughing one minute and totally engrossed the next. His current programme is well utilised particularly during Black History Month and Anti-Bullying Week and his outreach programme involves inspirational talks about dreams and goals, racism, bullying, peer pressure and education for people from all walks of life.

To book a workshop, or to make further enquiries please visit his website 'Motivation-4-Change' -

Paul’s personal website is

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