Paul Canoville is a cult hero at Chelsea FC where he is renowned as the first black player to play for the club, paving the way for subsequent home grown players to represent the club throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s.
Paul arrived in professional football at a time where racism was endemic in the British game, and like other black players at the time (such as John Barnes, Viv Anderson, Cyrille Regis and more) suffered horrendous abuse from not only opposing fans but also from sections of his own supporters. Despite this abuse, and in some cases a noticeable lack of support from within the then regime at the club, Paul built a successful career at the club between 1981-86, winning the Second Division title in 1983-84.
Pauls journey, alongside so many other players at clubs across the country at that time, was a hard and in some ways dangerous one. But at Chelsea he paved the way for the next generations of players at a club that has now counted Ruud Gullit, Marcel Desailly, Michael Essien, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Didier Drogba and N’Golo Kante alongside a host of British born black players amongst its ranks of heroes.
In 1986 Paul moved from Chelsea to Reading FC but suffered a serious knee injury and was forced to retire in 1987. He continued to be involved in football through the non-league game, but the injury ended his professional career.
Following his retirement from football at the age of 25, and with little post career planning in place as was usually the case in those times, Paul’s life began to spiral out of control. Despite building a good reputation as a DJ he became involved in, then addicted to crack cocaine, a situation exacerbated by the death of one of his children in 1995 due to a heart defect.
In 1996 Paul was diagnosed with cancer, specifically Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma – an aggressive form of cancer that attacks the immune system and required chemotherapy and hospitalisation. Despite getting the all clear in 1998, the cancer returned in 2004 and Paul once again needed aggressive treatment to beat the disease.
In 2005 Paul was given the all clear from cancer, and having beaten the disease for a second time went into rehab, and has been drug free since 2005.
Since 2005 Paul has rebuilt his life – writing an award-winning book about his life entitled Black and Blue (published 2007) that was updated as a documentary on Sky Sports in 2015 with contributions from former Chelsea players and supporters, including Pat Nevin, Keith Dublin, Michael Duberry, Eddie Newton and the DJ Trevor Nelson.
Paul now delivers motivational lectures and workshops on his journey and how he overcame these circumstances for both young people and corporate partners. He has also renewed his working relationship with the new regime at Chelsea, playing for Chelsea Legends (as his knee allows) and acting as a club ambassador on match days and in the community.
Despite the horrendous treatment he received from sections of the Chelsea support (and indeed within sections of the club) in the early eighties, Paul remains a Chelsea supporter and is immensely popular with the fan base as shown by the standing ovations he receives when introduced to the crowd at matches and events.
Pauls remarkable life story, and his resilience and strength in overcoming these challenges, has inspired many to approach him for advice. Recognising a need for young people to get advice, guidance, insight and support that was so often missing in his life, Paul established the Foundation to use his story in a positive way to inspire future generations.
Paul established his Foundation with help from the PFA, supported by the drive of Desmond Edwards to support and educate young people and build their resilience.
Photo Credit: Ted Smith-Orr