“The world is a great gymnasium where we come to make ourselves strong.”
If you choose football as a career, you definitely will be among the fittest and the toughest men on the Earth. But not necessarily, being physically fit can make you strong from inside. That is something you acquire from birth.
One such strong personality and respected figure in the history of Chelsea Football Club is that of Paul Canoville, the first black player to ever play for Chelsea. But what is the point of emphasizing on Paul’s mental and emotional strength here? Let us tell you about that.
Canoville, a winger, signed for Chelsea in December 1981 and made his debut on April 12, 1982, against Crystal Palace, at the age of 20. For any young player, to appear for Chelsea, even back in the day, was a big deal. For a black kid with a past in the world of small crimes, even more so. But the debut game, which was imagined as a new life for Canoville, was in fact just the beginning of his troubles. In his autobiography, Chelsea: Black and Blue, Paul writes:
“When John Neal told me to warm up, I went ‘Yes!’,” recalls Canoville. “I was having trouble at home, been chucked out by my mum for doing bits of crime, so this was great. As I ran down the line, I heard the abuse for the first time. ‘You black —-, you golliwog’. ‘Go back home you nigger’. I expected it on the street, but not in a professional stadium.”
“When I got stripped to come on, the abuse got louder. A lot of the Chelsea fans were doing it, jeering, throwing bananas. As I got on, I swear to God I wanted to come straight off. At the end, I shot straight down the tunnel. I was in shock. ‘Canners! You all right? The other players said. Of course, I wasn’t. Stupid question.”
When it comes to emotions and relations with his close ones, Paul is a sensitive person.
“I just wanted Mum to show me she loved me. I have ten kids myself now, and I say to them: Open up to me. Share things with me. I show my kids I love them.”, he writes in his book.
Let’s face it, almost every black player has been a victim of racism in football at some stage in his career. But what makes Paul’s story more than just a story of a black man who was racially abused, are the off-field problems that he faced and how he went on to overcome them. It is a pleasant surprise that you will still find him standing tall and with a smile on his face at the age of 53.
There are other aspects to being a great footballer than just talent. If it’s not your luck, you just can’t help it. Canoville too was unfortunate to have his debut season for the club, which was one of the worst in its history as they nearly avoided relegation to the Third Division on the final day. The 20-year-old, however, made his contribution, scoring a vital brace in a 4-2 win over Carlisle United and an equalizer against Fulham.
The next season saw Chelsea going on to become the Second Division champions, thanks to a series of John Neal signings who was the manager of Chelsea at that time. Paul made his contribution to the victory with seven goals in the season, including a hat-trick against Swansea City, which was his only one for the club.
The highest point in his Chelsea career came in the quarterfinal game of the Milk Cup against Sheffield Wednesday in 1985. When he came on as a half-time substitute, the Blues were trailing by three goals to nil. And exactly when his team needed him the most, he didn’t disappoint; Canoville opened the scoring within just 11 seconds after the restart. This laid the foundation for a stunning Chelsea comeback, which was capped by another Canoville goals which put Chelsea ahead by 4-3. A late penalty conceded by the Blues, however, put the game to a 4-4 stalemate.
He was sold to Reading in 1986 for £50,000, where he enjoyed a good start. But a series of major injuries within his first three months at the club, forced him to take a long break from football and eventually retire.
“On the weekend, I would have a little marijuana. Drug testing started coming up, and enough of the apprentices were taking it, so I only smoked a bit of weed. Then I got injured the day before I was supposed to see the insurance guy and eventually retired.”, Paul states in his book.
This was the point when his off-field problems began to take over his life.
“Life had been great: up at 10 o’clock, train till 12 o’clock, play, get paid. Football was a rush. Go out, spend money on clothes. Now I had commitments, bills. I became a driver. With what little money I had, I was still going out raving, thinking I was the Don. I wasn’t.
“I played semi-pro, picked up the odd £200 to £300. I got a bit depressed, driving all day to pay the mortgage. That’s when the drugs really came in. I was spending £500 a week on crack, bingeing for two, three days.
“When I came out of the binge, I thought: ‘Paul, think of the bills you could have paid with that £500.’ I always thought I could kick crack, but it was stronger than me.”
The rehabilitation wasn’t an easy path to walk on, but it did take Paul out of drugs to some extent, only for him to see his nine-day-old baby son dying in his arms.
“One of my ‘baby-mothers’, Tracey, had a second child, Tye, and I’d said if I ever had two children by the same woman, I would settle down. But something was wrong. The consultant said: ‘He’s finding it difficult to breathe, and it is too much of a risk to do the operation. Eventually, he is going to die. I cried. I was telling the Lord: ‘Please take me, not him. I’m the one who has been useless, been bad.
“Nine days and nights I stayed up with Tye, giving him Insulin every four hours to make him breathe. We took him to be registered. People could hear him gasping. ‘Is he all right?’ ‘No, he isn’t.’ We rushed him to hospital, and they said: ‘It is time.’ He was in my arms. I heard his last gasp. I went mad.”
Drugs again seemed to him as the only solution to his misery. He was wrong. Paul stole money from his girlfriend’s purse, stole from his mother, sold his few medals- only to fulfill his crack addiction.
“I was working for a plumber and kept nicking things, hoping to be caught by the police to sort myself out.”
“One day, Simon Chandler, an apprentice with me at Chelsea, saw me on the road, looking rough. ‘Canners. This ain’t you. You used to play for Chelsea. We’re going to get you into rehab.’ Rehab was God-sent. I got back my senses, myself.”
If seeing one of his children dying, coming out of drugs after a long suffering and being racially abused throughout his career wasn’t enough to break a man’s spirit down and make him lose all hopes of living, cancer came as yet another weapon that destiny used, trying to bring him down.
“I was waking up with this pain every morning. All I did was take painkillers on an empty stomach. Gave myself ulcers. After two weeks, I went to the doctors, who rushed me to the hospital, straight to an operation. The consultant said: ‘Just to let you know, you have had cancer.’ ‘You’re mad,’ I said. ‘I’ve just retired. I’m a fit lad.’
“If I had enemies, I wouldn’t give even them chemotherapy. It made me feel 75. They told me I couldn’t have any more kids. Hold on. Even though I had 10, I might still want more.
“Cancer came back in 2004. My immune system was trashed. I went from 14 stone to 11. My hair dropped out. The only thing I could eat was ice cream and jelly. I recovered, but my mum gave it to me: Do you know how close you were to dying?”
Even after all he has gone through, as he writes in his book at the end, he is now working in the community for his old club, mentoring and advising kids in school not to make the mistakes as he did. Not only that, but he is also going back to see his old team.
His outlook towards the Chelsea fans changed a lot after this one incident, where a fan approached him and said sorry for having been one of those racist fans. With tears in his eyes, he told Paul:
“I was ignorant. I was following my dad. I didn’t know better. I realise now…and I tell my kids about racism.
Paul said: I got to respect that. I do respect that.”
Not only this, on one of his occasional visits to Stamford Bridge in 2008, he revealed his love for the blue shirt.
“I love Essien, Lamps and Joe Cole,” said Canoville. “I’m Chelsea through and through.”
Today, he counsels his children and other kids not to choose the same path of crime and drugs as he did at one point in his life. Having been through a tumultuous past, he is helping build a better future to leave this world a better place than he found it.
‘A diamond is merely a lump of coal, which did well under pressure’. This may not describe Paul’s career too well. His career took a downturn under pressure – as incomprehensible that pressure might be – but in the game of life, Paul Canoville did emerge out as winner and is very much a diamond – Chelsea’s very own Black Diamond.
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Edited By: Karan Dubey
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