By Paul’s close friend, co-author and official Chelsea FC historian, Rick Glanvill
Paul Canoville was – and is – Black and Blue.
When I first sat down with Paul Canoville in a Crouch End cafe to discuss ‘Black and Blue’, I knew he was still ravaged by the physical and mental challenges that characterised his life after the curtain came down on his football dream.
We’d never met and I saw only glimpses of the real man. Get this project right, I said, and your circumstances could be completely transformed. The book became an acclaimed award-winner and, happily, Paul’s circumstances did improve. But it was not the book that did it – it was Paul himself, gradually, inexorably reassessing his past and regaining his trajectory in life.
Canners’ story is one of extreme racist bigotry, shattering career-ending injury, a decline into drug abuse, battles against cancer, family tragedy and a determination to beat the odds.
He was Chelsea’s first black first-team player, making his debut in 1982. But as he warmed up on the touchline, his own supporters began chanting “We don’t want the n*****!”
The vitriol went as far as letters sent to Chelsea FC addressed to Paul, with razor blades in the envelope flap. And the racist bile continued whenever he played, home and away, but within a year he had won over the terraces with his explosive pace and skill.
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. Soon after that intervention, Paul was crowned ‘King Canners’ by Blues fans.
At times 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 transferred to Reading in 1986.
It was at his new club where Paul suffered a horrific challenge at the age of 24, which caused his eventual retirement the following year. This started a downward spiral including the death of his baby in his arms, two bouts of life-threatening lymph cancer, drug abuse and homelessness.
Yet Canners fought back to become a shining symbol of endurance and resistance. And despite everything, he is more positive than ever, remaining a fervent Chelsea fan all his life. His inspiring story is one of overcoming adversity and rising up resilient. I’m honoured to call him a friend.