If you carry scars from wounds suffered which were not your responsibility, you cannot be blamed.
You had to be around the early days of black and ethnic minority players breaking into top class football to appreciate just how vicious, how strident, how unforgiving, how ignorant the racism was.
When Paul Canoville took to the pitch at Crystal Palace on April 12th 1982, under six weeks past his 20th birthday, nothing had prepared him for the tsunami of abuse from his own Chelsea fans that was immediately hurled at him.
It carried on hideously. From bananas thrown on the pitch, monkey chants screeched at full volume by thousands, yes thousands, of ‘supporters’, to letters addressed to him at the club with razor blades in the envelope flap, it was incessant.
And it remained that way.
This was the era when so many black players were trying to break through, no-one was going to rock the boat, mostly they were the one black guy in a team, so these were experiences which had to be handled alone.
For Paul, two incidents reduced the abuse. In December 1983 he scored a hat-trick at home to Swansea, a wet Tuesday night in front of just 12,389 people. But from the well of the Shed rose a chant for the first time: “Canoville, Canoville, Canoville…” It was really only a murmur, but it was loud enough for all the ground to hear.
And then, in April 1984, two years after his debut, back at Crystal Palace, two years of monumental hatred, Pat Nevin scored the only goal of the game, and when questioned by the journalists about the match said he didn’t want to talk about it, he only wanted to talk about abuse still hurled at Paul. It had to stop. White man addressing racism! Headlines!
And so he became ‘Canners’, the flying left-winger with an eye for goal, a still too erratic cross which could continue to fetch up savage racist condemnation, a quiet 22 year old trying to get on with his career, his life, but now filled with uncertainty.
All his games had been in the old Second Division. Chelsea got promoted in 1984, and he settled into the top flight fine. He even got a second black player in the team, midfielder Keith Jones.
In January 1985, before the era of penalty shoot-outs to decide Cup ties, Chelsea faced Sheffield Wednesday at home in the fifth round of the League Cup. It was a 1-1 draw. For the replay at Hillsborough he was a substitute. At half-time Chelsea were 3-0 down. He was sent on and scored immediately, scored again at 3-3 to put Chelsea ahead, and although the game finished 4-4 he was now building a small legendary status. In the second replay at
Stamford Bridge, he took the last minute corner from which Mickey Thomas headed the winner in a 2-1 victory. His acceptance took another step forward.
But this is all about his public persona. There was also the dressing room to manoeuvre, and a pre-season incident in summer 1985 in which he encountered racist abuse from a team-mate led to confrontation, and he, the minority, was made to suffer. He started only three games that season and was sold to second Division Reading in 1986.
Returning to the atmosphere of first team matches, he was in impressive form, but flying wingers get cut down, and in October he suffered a knee injury which ended his career. He was 24. He recovered to play a few games but was never a premier athlete again, and had to retire.
There were scars.
There were financial issues, there were no agents to advise him, there was no place in the game for a black man to turn to.
Parts of his life fell apart, and he was lost to the top class end of the sport. Firstly there was addiction to crack, there was a growing collection of children he was responsible for, and then in the 1990s there were two exhausting battles with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. That led to a damaged immune system and a life threatening period of infection. He survived.
He survived, and slowly he grew. Always close to his sister, she helped him build himself up again.
In 2006 he returned to Chelsea, at the age of 44, and was the half-time guest on the pitch on the first day of the season against Manchester City. He was terrified. He was going to walk round the pitch in front of all the fans. He had no idea what the response would be, and he didn’t feel prepared for another battering.
The response was phenomenal. His name was sung, his achievements were celebrated, and most of all there felt in the air an emotion of ‘public apology’. After the game he was spotted outside the stadium, and an enormous queue of supporters formed to welcome him back, and more than that, a huge number apologised for the way they’d conducted themselves back in the 1980s. For the first time at Stamford Bridge, he felt at home without conditions.
And, lucky man, the scars lifted. He has none.
Now that doesn’t happen to everyone, and he knows that only too well. And so he decided to dedicate time and energy to opposing the causes of racism, treating the excuses for it, and supporting those with scars from the fall-out with the Paul Canoville Foundation.
Suddenly he was in demand. He developed the art of public speaking and gave talks on his career and life, and then he prepared and supported more detailed projects. He went into
schools, into training grounds, to America, to Australia, he became part of the hospitality entertainment on matchdays at Stamford Bridge.
He knows that the way forward has to be based on inclusivity with youth as The Foundations key audience.. And that in hard times, the old demons can surface!
He still has to be wary of his health, of his own old demons.
The Paul Canoville Foundation fights for, demands, teaches, celebrates inclusivity & diversity. An equal life to be enjoyed. Preferably without scars.