Overcoming The Clutches Of Racism – The Paul Canoville Story

Through electronic and social media, we hear, read and observe shocking tales of racism from the past and the relatively better present. But have you ever heard about a player getting racially abused by his OWN fans? Souvanik Seal at Goalden Times takes you through the jaw-dropping and ever-inspiring story of Paul Canoville.

It’s indeed a matter of shame that in the progressive world of today, we still have to deal with the existence of discrimination based on skin colour. Recent behaviour of a few Chelsea fans at the Paris metro after a Champions League tie at Parc des Princes shocked the entire football fraternity, and not for the first time. However, prompt actions were taken by Chelsea Football Club and the miscreants were banned for life from attending games at Stamford Bridge. On the pitch too, there have been many instances of players getting subjected to racial abuses from the opposition fans but have you ever heard about a player getting  belaboured by racial ditties from his very own fans? If you haven’t, you are going to, as we take you through the shocking and at the same time, the  true, inspiring story of Paul Canoville in the next few paragraphs.

Born in 1962, Canoville grew up in Hillingdon which is located in West London. The son of two Caribbean expatriate parents, his father walked out when he was aged two, leaving his disciplinarian mother to bring up two children alone in austere conditions. Finding it extremely difficult to find enjoyment in daily mundane life, football provided an escape route. As a kid, this gentleman, like many of his compatriots  had one dream – to become a professional footballer. However, it seemed that the dream was fading away until, in late 1981, second-division club Chelsea signed the 19-year-old from non-league Hillingdon Borough. A gifted left-winger with the sort of pace and trickery that would win over hearts at an instant, he soon began to attract attention with his performances for the reserves.

Canoville going past Arsenal players (Source – PA)

“When I started I found it kind of easy. In the reserves I was man of the match most games. I was scoring goals, making goals; it was great. All that time I was thinking that being a professional was gonna be hard – but it was really easy”  said he, reminiscing about his fledgling career.

With his confidence sky-high, Paul craved for the opportunity to prove his mettle for a place in the first team. That opportunity came after four months when John Neal, the then Chelsea manager, names him in the squad to face Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.

“I was so excited, I was ready for it. Getting to the ground on the coach on the day, even that was exciting. It was the first time I’d ever seen a coach with tables, a toilet, everything! I’d only ever been on one coach, a 52-seater that took me to Margate as a little kid. It was like, ‘Bloody hell, this is like a flat or an apartment!'”

Canoville had been named as one of the substitutes. He took his place and began to imbibe the atmosphere, enthralled with the prospect of fulfilling his childhood dream. He sat on the bench, watching the game and studying his opponents. With less than a quarter of an hour to go, John Neal ordered him to warm up. Exhilarated, Canoville got up. However just as he started to warm up, he was greeted by loud jeers. Initially, he thought that it was coming from the Crystal Palace fans trying to lower his morale. But when he turned back, he saw something that he could never even imagine in his worst nightmare. Stunned, he noticed, the jeers were coming from his own fans in the away stand.

“I got really angry and I turned around, and that’s when I was really shocked. Because it wasn’t the Crystal Palace fans, it was my own fans. I couldn’t believe that – my own fans? They don’t even know me.”

“I got really angry and I turned around, and that’s when I was really shocked. Because it wasn’t the Crystal Palace fans, it was my own fans. I couldn’t believe that – my own fans? They don’t even know me.”

As Canoville prepared to enter the fray, a chorus of “We don’t need the n****r” reverberated from the away end and bananas were thrown in his direction. Once on the pitch, the abuse continued, his every touch booed by Chelsea supporters. Stunned, tormented and with his confidence smashed, Canoville went into a shell and did virtually nothing for the rest of the game.

“I couldn’t wait for the referee to blow his whistle.”

Unfortunately, the booing of black players was nothing new. It had almost become the norm in English football. However, booing one’s own  black players was never seen or heard of before in England.

Chelsea back then were a club with a reputation for their notorious hooligan following; their fans had been banned from traveling to away matches in 1977 and opposition black players could expect a tough trip to Stamford Bridge.

The early years as described by Canoville were “horrendous”. Paul had lost his enthusiasm to come out on the pitch. He would warm up inside the changing room and go out just before the game. He hated to be named as a substitute. When he would start warming up, racial ditties would reverberate around the ground. At the old Stamford Bridge he’d prefer to stay behind the goal as it relatively further from the notorious section of the crowd. In Canoville’s first full season at the club, Chelsea finished in their lowest ever league position, narrowly avoiding relegation to the third tier of English football. In some aspects, the club’s changing fortunes and identity reflected those of the country. The upright and gentlemanly Chelsea of the 1950s had been defenestrated by the glamour of the King’s Road as the club became the manifestation of Swinging-Sixties London, with colourful zealot crowds high on mod and reggae packing Stamford Bridge.

Just as Britain faced economic instability during the 1970s, over-ambitious ground redevelopment plans saw Chelsea taking a plunge into the red. Chelsea were relegated to the second tier and away from the cameras, they became the refuge of extremist groups.

Outside Stamford Bridge, skinheads would sell copies of Bulldog, the National Front’s youth-targeted rag. The National Front is a British far-right political party for whites only, opposed to non-white immigration, and committed to a programme of repatriation. It was formed in 1967 by fairly obscure organisations on the far-right. They created one of the most notorious and longest running racist organisations in the world. The NF began life as an uncomfortable coalition of the conservative right, old fashioned imperialists and Hitler admirers. After becoming Britain’s fourth largest party by the mid-seventies, the election of the right wing Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1979 General Election, saw the NF begin a headfirst dive. Its misfortune took it into a seedy world of factional strife, violent splits and at times, incredible ideological oddities. By the early 1980s, with unemployment racing towards the three million mark, there were plenty of alienated youngsters at football grounds for them to prey on. This was the quagmire into which Canoville had been trapped. The situation went from bad to worse and reached a breaking point where Canoville started to question his desire of playing football for Chelsea. Football clearly had growing racism issues, but there were no support networks and very few role models. But Paul wasn’t the kind of character that’d let racist chants and banana skins halt his career. With encouragement from the manager and the backing of the club, Canoville resolved to carry on and let his feet do the talking.

“John Neal said to me, ‘Look, you put it to ’em, show ’em how good you are. I know you can do it.’ It took some people to encourage me, but I enjoyed that because it gave me a task: to shut them up, to show them how good I was. I wasn’t going to allow anyone to get in the way of my dream. It’s all I lived for.”

“But that weren’t that easy, man. It was nearly two and a half years that [abuse] was going on. Even when I scored, for those fans, they would say it didn’t count because I was black; that’s the ignorance of them.”

“But that weren’t that easy, man. It was nearly two and a half years that [abuse] was going on. Even when I scored, for those fans, they would say it didn’t count because I was black; that’s the ignorance of them.”

It was worse playing at home. From the dugout, when the team used to run out towards the right while warming up, racial abuses continued to be hurled at Canoville, mainly from the East Lower Stand. Those did not serve as any morale booster, rather could have demoralized him permanently but still Canoville decided to fight on.  Whenever he got on the pitch, he had only one thing in mind – To show everyone what he was capable of.

Paul kept on fighting despite the adversities in his way. His mother was his greatest source of inspiration. When his mother came from the Caribbean, it was difficult for her to find a job. She once applied to become a maid but was refused the job since she was black, but she did not stop. She fought on, kept pursuing other possible vacancies, worked at hotels and laundries to support her children in the absence of her husband.

“My mum’s stubborn and I think that’s where I get it from.”

“My mum’s stubborn and I think that’s where I get it from.”

Canoville was aided by supportive teammates, who he still speak about him with great affection. Amidst the ongoing racism, he enjoyed their company and he loved training with them in the morning.

At the same time, Canoville felt that Chelsea Football Club didn’t do as much as they could’ve to deal with the situation, probably because they did not know how to. Back then, anti-racism organisations like ‘Show racism the red card’ weren’t in existence. So virtually, he was on his own, getting used to the atmosphere and fighting a lost battle.

Chelsea progressed to the Second Division title, aided by new signings such as Pat Nevin and Kerry Dixon. In December, Canoville scored a hat-trick against Swansea, and the Shed did sing his name. However, almost exactly two years after his debut, Canoville was again booed by his own supporters at Selhurst Park.

Things were going out of the hand. An intervention was much needed, and it was provided by Pat Nevin. Nevin used his post-match interviews to address the ‘disgraceful’ treatment that Paul received from the supporters.  Chelsea too began to take action. Erstwhile chairman, Ken Bates, said that he intended to “persecute and harass” the National Front presence at Chelsea and expel them from the ground. The party rapidly declined during the 1980s, although it retained some support in the West Midlands and in parts of London (usually centred around Terry Blackham). The party effectively split into two halves during the 1980s, after it had expelled Martin Webster. On one side were the Political Soldier ideas of young radicals such as Nick Griffin, Patrick Harrington, Phil Andrews and Derek Holland, who were known as the Official National Front. They had little interest in contesting elections, preferring a ‘revolutionary’ strategy.

The opposition NF Flag Group contained the traditionalists such as Andrew Brons, Ian Anderson, Martin Wingfield, Tina Wingfield, Joe Pearce (initially associated with the Political Soldiers’ faction) and Steve Brady, who ran candidates under the NF banner in the 1987 general election. The Flag Group did some ideological work of its own, and the ideas of social credit and equality were popular, but the chief preoccupation was still race relations. Some hoped that having two parties within one might help to save the NF from oblivion after 1979. The phrase “Let a thousand initiatives bloom” was coined (meaning that internal diversity should be tolerated) in the hope of re-capturing support, but clashes occurred nevertheless. In the 1989 Vauxhall by-election, Harrington stood as the Official National Front candidate against Ted Budden for the Flag NF, both sides cat-calling at one another during the declaration of the result. By 1990, the Political Soldiers had fallen out with one another, splintering into Griffin’s International Third Position (ITP) and Harrington’s Third Way, leaving the Flag Group under Anderson and Wingfield to continue alone. Around this time, the ‘official’ NF lost much of its traditional English support as a result of its support for black radicals such as Louis Farrakhan. The former supporters either moved to the British National Party (BNP), the rapidly declining British Movement, or to the White Noise umbrella group Blood and Honour.

According to Canoville  the greatest change, and the moment from which he truly felt accepted and appreciated by the fans, came the following season after his blistering performance in a Milk Cup semi-final replay at Hillsborough. Down by 3 goals at half-time, Canoville was introduced in the second-half and he scored after just 11 seconds on the pitch with his first touch of the ball. Later he’d set-up a goal and score another one himself. Eight goals were equally shared between the teams, the match ended 4-4, thus forcing a replay (which Chelsea won).

Canoville in action. (Source – paulcanoville.co.uk)

Changes were occurring both on and off the pitch. The National Front’s fortunes were on the decline as mentioned earlier and the club’s efforts to banish them from Stamford Bridge were bearing fruit. The Bulldog sellers disappeared. While there would be sporadic outbreaks of hooliganism as the decade progressed, Stamford Bridge was on its way to becoming an inclusive place once again.

After the Milk Cup semi-final, Chelsea were up against Watford at home. Canoville tracked Luther Blisset down the right and tackled hard. He got up and saw something that he had never experienced before – The Shed End began to sing his name. Canoville had done it. He finally succeeded in winning over the fans. Things did change from then, it got better. When Canoville used to start a game on the bench, the crowd used to shout “Yeah, come on! Get Canners on!” This was it. This was football’s victory over racism.

After a bust-up with one of his teammates, the identity of whom was never revealed, Canoville left Chelsea for second division Reading in 1986. However, he succumbed to a terrible knee injury and was forced to leave his childhood dream incomplete – at the age of just 25.

Canoville and Chelsea’s fight  bore   the fruits of success – 2 years later, Ken Monkou would become the first black recipient of Chelsea’s player of the year award. Almost a decade later, Ruud Gullit would lead them to the FA Cup, the UEFA Cup Winners Cup and the UEFA Super Cup. A further 14 years down the line, Didier Drogba’s penalty in Munich won the club their first UEFA Champions League crown.

“I was pleased with what Eric Cantona did [leaping into an abusive fan at Selhurst Park]. But I never retaliated. Mum disciplined me. I thought about my past, being a delinquent and burgling places. I’d made it in football. I didn’t want to waste the chance.”

“People react in different ways. Ian Wright was aggressive. John Barnes was calm. I ignored it but I stored a lot of anger inside me. I went home and let my anger out with a friend or a family member.”

And Paul’s fortitude reaped  its rewards.  Almost 3 decades down the line, before the Champions League final in Munich, Roberto Di Matteo named SIX black players in Chelsea’s starting eleven in stark contrast to the gloomy days of the National Front and that afternoon at Selhurst Park.

Paul currently runs Chelsea’s ‘Building Bridges’ initiative. It is a campaign that deals with racism around the bridge. He is also a Freelance Motivational Speaker, who has worked in education, the criminal justice system and local communities for the past eight years. He also partners with “Kick It Out” and other organisations alongside delivering workshops in schools, prisons and community groups. His discussions focus on issues around bullying and the importance of education. Paul is an excellent communicator and loves to engage with people at various  levels. Unlike professional footballers of modern times, Paul is neither rich, nor glamorous. He is in an ordinary bloke, but his actions and the way he has improvised, adapted and overcome difficulties are a shining example. It’d not be wrong to conclude that his legacy at Chelsea is at par with that of Drogba. If the latter is credited for bringing the holy grail to Stamford Bridge, the former paved the way for him and the likes of Claude Makelele, Marcel Desailly, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and several others to play in SW6.

A living legend, a true icon against racism and an inspiration to anyone who can endure anything just to live their dream – Paul Canoville’s story defies belief, but every word is true. Thus vindicating once again, football mirrors life.


  1. bbc.co.uk
  2. telegraph.co.uk
  3. paulcanoville.co.uk

Feature Image Courtesy: Chelsea FC

Souvanik Seal

About Souvanik Seal

An ardent follower of the English Premier League, lifelong fan of Chelsea FC and the Brazilian National Team. Apart from football, music, movies and gaming keeps him engaged. He can be reached on twitter @souvanikseal01