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Racism, Crack Cocaine & Cancer – The Story Of Chelsea’s First Black Player Paul Canoville

Football encompasses many things; delight and despair, pleasure and pain, affection and animosity. The story of Paul Canoville is one that is both fascinating and depressing in equal measure.

Every boy dreams of one day growing up to become a professional footballer. The roar of the crowd, thousands of people screaming your name. Sadly, as ‘Canners’ quickly found out, the reality is not as glorious as it appears.

Paul Canoville was born in Middlesex in 1962. Born to Caribbean parents, life for a black immigrant in 1960s England was difficult. Racism was rife and the National Front, a far-right political party for whites only, was prominent in the area. ‘Canners’ upbringing was particularly difficult, with his father walking out on the family when he was very young.

“[Growing up] was difficult, as there was a lot of National Front in the area. Not just in the community, but in the police too. For me it was hard enough because my Dad left when I was two years old, so it was difficult for my [mother] to bring up me and my sister on her own.”

Canoville admits that the departure of his father had a negative effect on him and he made things difficult for his mother.

“I made things difficult for her. I wanted this and wanted that but couldn’t get it, so I went out and got it myself.”

Like so many young people that endured troubled upbringings, football was seen as an escape. Canners was no different and played at every opportunity possible. Although football was seen as a get-out clause, he was still misbehaving and ended up in a juvenile detention centre. Throughout his fragile youth, it was clear that football was the only constant.

“Growing up through the ages, I got myself in trouble, went to borstal, but football was the major input in my life that made me direct myself to behave. Because of what I did to end up in borstal, my mom had to move. I didn’t want to go so I ran away.”

Fortunately for Canners, his decision to run away but continue to play football paid dividends, and he ended up lining out for non-league Hillingdon Borough. His performances saw him called up to the first team at the age of sixteen, and two seasons later Chelsea came calling. After a successful trial, Canners signed on the dotted line and his dream had come true.

Sadly, the ‘dream’ would soon turn to a nightmare following his call up to Chelsea’s senior squad.

“I was in the reserves scoring goals, taking on players. It was so easy. I thought, hang on ‘I expected this to be hard!’ When I got called up the first team, I thought ‘this is it, blimey.”

Every professional player remembers their senior debut, it is the culmination of years of hard work. However, Canners would go on to remember his debut for all the wrong reasons.

England in 1982 was a different place to what it is today, and professional football was still coming to terms with the rise of young black players.

Chelsea travelled to Selhurst Park on April12th, 1982 to face Crystal Palace and Paul Canoville was set to make his eagerly anticipated debut. Canners, the working class troublemaker from Middlesex, was about to make history and become the first ever black player to line out for Chelsea Football Club. However, what transpired on that infamous day would unearth a side to football that the youngster did not know existed.

“After 85 minutes or so, I was told to warm up. That’s when it hit me.

“My own fans were shouting racist abuse at me. I really thought it was the Crystal Palace fans, but when I turned around I saw it was my own.”

As Canners went through his warm up, a section of the Chelsea fans began to hurl abuse at the 20-year-old. Shouts of “sit down you black c*nt. We don’t want the n*gger!” destroyed the young footballer’s confidence. One fan even threw a banana at his feet.

“I got on the pitch and didn’t want to do anything. The ball came to me, I gave it back. I just wanted the whistle and went straight into the changing rooms. It was hard, but football was my dream and I wasn’t about to let anybody spoil it. I had to think, am I ready to accept this? I knew there was going to be more.”

When asked whether the racist abuse motivated Canners to work harder, he was insistent. The sad reality was that the racist narrow-minded fans in the stands were the ones that were ultimately paying his wages.

“I wanted to show them how good I was. The game is about confidence but most times I didn’t go out to warm up, I just stayed in the changing room. Even at Stamford Bridge, the manager would tell me to warm up but I could see those same fans behind the goal. They would be waving at me saying ‘come on Canners. Come back here.”

Although the abuse was consistent, Chelsea’s form was not. They only retained their division two status thanks to some final day heroics.

Chelsea were a much improved side the following year and, under John Neal, Canners played an important role in the team. They were even promoted to England’s top tier. Things were on the up for Canners, he was scoring for his club and even met his father for the first time since he left.

It was a special day, with Canners scoring two goals and the Chelsea fans screaming his name. He was beginning to feel the acceptance from the fans that he yearned for for so long.

“Don’t get me wrong, any player that comes to Chelsea you want them to feel accepted and appreciated. Why am I here? Why am I playing in this shirt if you’re not going to accept and respect me? What am I going to do, score against you? Nah man. I’m playing to win. It was difficult, it really was.”

Although the incidents of racism were common, it did not make them any easier. One particular incident in a reserves game clearly portrayed the bigotry that ran deep in football at the time.

“I played against Millwall, and at the time they were notorious. I was warming up and I just saw three guys with pillowcases on their heads. I thought, no way. How could they allow these people in the ground? I completely lost my head and I was very upset. I began flying into tackles and the ref told my manager to take me off or he was going to send me off.”

Canners’ Chelsea career came to an acrimonious ending following an incident involving Canners and an unnamed teammate, and he moved to Reading. Heartbreak awaited him at his new club.

“I didn’t want to leave Chelsea, but of course because of the incident [I had no choice]. Manchester United came in with a £5 million bid but Chelsea wouldn’t sell to a team in the division so [I went to Reading].”

The Reading faithful were good to Canners from the beginning and accepted him with open arms. Tragedy would strike however, as a serious knee injury confirmed his worst nightmare and ended Canners’ career.

“I looked at my leg and one side was twisted one way and the other side was twisted another. To be given the bad news, it was like, boy, what?”

The injury would signal the start of a downward spiral in Canners’ life and one that would see him succumb to drug addiction.

“I got depression so bad and I tried other jobs but I couldn’t adjust to them. I got involved in crack cocaine.”

Canners mentioned the words ‘crack cocaine’ with a saddening sigh, as if remembering the vicious hold the drug had on him.

“I thought I was handling it, but I was in denial. I wasn’t looking after myself, wasn’t paying my bills. I was hiding from everybody. Next thing you know, I…”

He took a deep breath before uttering the next few words.

“I got cancer.”

Canners was in a very vulnerable place, and the news that he was now fighting cancer, along with his depression and drug addiction hit him hard. Sadly, cancer would take over his life.

“That hit me like a thunderstorm, trust me. I’ve had cancer three times now and I don’t say it lightly when I say I nearly died.”

Children have been a major part of Canners’ life. He has fathered eleven kids with ten different women. However, as with all aspects of his life, tragedy was never too far away.

“My son died in my arms. That was….difficult. It was a low point and made me crash back into drugs again.”

Canners had hit the proverbial gutter. To hold his son in his arms and watch him breathe his last breath was a harrowing experience that Canners will carry for the rest of his life.

“I took it upon myself and realised, ‘Paul, this is the wrong way to go’ and I went back into rehab and sorted it out. That was really hard. There was a reason for it.”

Despite the negativity that appears to have been omnipresent throughout Canners’ life, the positivity with which he currently speaks is a testament to the character of Paul Canoville. Depression is a major talking point in sport today and it can only be helped through talk and people opening up about their problems.

Depression played a major part in Canners’ downward spiral and he has become an advocate for people to share their problems.

“It’s good to talk to somebody. In men, it’s looked at as being weak. That’s wrong, it helps to open up. It can help if it’s a third person, a stranger, as there’s no obstacles here. I had never opened up to anyone before and it helped me. There was a lot of burden on my shoulders, and it got to be released.

“Now I can understand why I’m still here, I’m here for a reason. I’m with my foundation, MTC (Motivate To Change) and I’m sharing my stories with these kids so that they don’t need to go through what I’ve gone through. You can do the right thing, you can take your education seriously. That’s what I believe right now.”

The story of Paul Canoville is one that has scaled the heights of professional football, to the lows of drug addiction. Racism, the loss of loved ones, depression, Canners has experienced the negative sides to life that some could never imagine. However, despite the dark days, Paul Canoville has soared above it all and is now a beacon of hope for anyone that is struggling today.

The overriding theme from speaking to Canners is that talk is important when it comes to depression. If you are experiencing bad times, don’t bottle it up. Speak to someone. If Paul had kept his problems to himself, who knows what could have happened.

“That’s the thing about depression: A human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end. The fog is like a cage without a key.”- Elizabeth Wurtzel.

Richard Barrett, Pundit Arena.

If you would like to speak to Paul about his amazing story, or would like him to speak at an event, you can contact him through his website: www.paulcanoville.com.

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