Paul Elliott’s Chelsea star burned brightly but unfortunately briefly during the early 1990s. A big-name signing in 1991 at a time when the Blues were attempting to re-establish ourselves as a top-flight force, the commanding centre-back was an instant hit and looked set to dominate in our defence for years to come.
That was until a highly controversial challenge by Liverpool’s Dean Saunders in September 1992 inflicted a serious knee injury on Elliott. Almost two years later and having been unable to play again, he eventually had to retire. Nowadays he is chair of the FA’s Inclusion Advisory Board.
Today, during what is Black History Month, the official Chelsea website publishes an interview with the first black player to captain the team in which he looks back on his Stamford Bridge days…
Tell us about how you came to sign for Chelsea?
There was a lot of talk because there was an opportunity to sign for Chelsea before I actually did, but it did not materialise. This was when I was leaving Italy and they were very serious about it but then I went to Celtic.
I always got on well with Ken Bates [Chelsea chairman at the time], and whether you like him or loathe him, one thing I have learnt in life is always judge people by how they treat you and Ken has been fantastic with me. I always kept a rapport with him and he sent people up regularly to watch me at Celtic.
I remember we played in a cup final and I played well and he was up at the game. I met him that evening and it was very informal, I went to a night club called Victoria’s and Ken turned up. He looked at me and said, ‘Are you going to buy me a drink then?’ So I asked him what he would like and he said he wanted to have a bottle of champagne now in anticipation of me joining Chelsea in the summer. I said, ‘Well Ken, I am not so sure about that,’ and he replied, ‘You don’t want to join us then?’ and I told him of course I do.
So the long and short of it is he is the one who took me to Chelsea. At the end of that season I won the Scottish Player of the Year and had done my two years there and I was ready to go back home to London. I had been on the road for a number of years and it ended up with me going to Chelsea and it was a fantastic move.
When I went there the club was in transition, we hadn’t that long ago been promoted and the stadium was certainly not what it is now but it was a fantastic move for me, I really enjoyed my time and wish I could have played a lot longer. I like to think I made a big impact in the short time.
I didn’t realise until years after that I became Chelsea’s first black captain and that was hugely significant given the challenges of racism in football, so I am very proud of that. It was great and I have a soft spot for Chelsea. I am a Charlton Athletic fan as well and I am very emotionally attached to them but I remember Chelsea in the 70s, with the kit with the white stripe and it was fantastic.
What were your immediate impressions of the club?
That it had vast potential. They had plans to build the new stadium and Ken painted a beautiful picture of what he wanted the club to be like, and fulfilled that before selling it on to Roman Abramovich in 2003. I remember having lunch with him on the day he sold the club. It was a good club, it had potential, a great history, a big name. It had been in the wilderness for a little while and it was ready to go on and fulfil its potential.
What about Stamford Bridge itself?
When I arrived it was like a chip shop and later it was like Harrods. It was in transition and it was hard to imagine what Ken wanted to do was viable. I remember he showed me the drawings and the architects’ plans, and it blew me away. I remember thinking I want to be here to play in that environment. I didn’t get there but I have been back often enough to embrace it.
What do you remember about the backing the team received from the fans, both home and away, during your time at the club?
I think I engaged with the fans very quickly because I scored two goals in my first two home games, against Wimbledon and Notts County. I did wonder, having come from Celtic, would there be any sticky moments but there weren’t and the supporters were fantastic. There was not the international flavour there is now but Chelsea historically have always had a great following, a strong support that came from all over. It wasn’t just London. A real diverse fanbase.
What influence did the managers you worked under here have on you?
Ian Porterfield was a great guy who has sadly passed away. I just clicked with him, he saw me as his leader and he was a great human being. Glenn Hoddle simply took the club to another level. I always said he had the third eye. He was ahead of the game.
He came from Swindon to Chelsea and he played at the back as a sweeper and he lit up the place with his range of passing, unbelievable feet and his positional sense. His tactical and technical knowledge of football was absolutely second to none.
When I had been playing in Italy I learned discipline and Glenn brought discipline and professionalism to Chelsea. He wanted to upgrade the facilities and the training ground and he was a very forward-thinking manager.
Which team-mates were you closest to during your time here? Are you still in touch with them now?
I saw Dennis Wise not so long ago at the FA, he looks great, he is lighter now than when he was playing! I see Tony Cascarino periodically, he is a good lad Cas. I have not seen Andy Townsend for a while but I have seen Frank Sinclair. Eddie Newton is still doing some really good work at the club, and Andy Myers, and I am pleased the club has kept those players involved. That is very important and they are good role models for younger players.
Jason Cundy was another young player when I was at Chelsea. I tried to help them along and they had a thirst for knowledge and a good attitude.
Were there any opposition teams or players you particularly disliked facing and, if so, why?
Not really in England, because playing in Italy, my debut for Pisa was against AC Milan who had Gullit, Van Basten, Rijkaard, Ancelotti, Baresi and Maldini, and my next game was against Napoli with Maradona, so I wasn’t worried about playing against anyone here!
What about opposition fans, were there intimidating stadiums to play at?
Again going to Italy and playing in some of the stadiums there, I have had a bit of abuse in my time, racial abuse, and that left me in good stead so there wasn’t anywhere in particular where I felt apprehensive. By the time I came to Chelsea I was a very mature player. I had also played against Rangers at Ibrox as a Celtic player so there was nothing that really fazed me. I was ready to take the world on.
How do you look back on your time at Chelsea overall? Is there anything you would change or do differently?
I just wanted to play longer, I had to retire at 30. I was a very fit player, a good athlete, I was confident I would have played until at least 35 because I looked after myself. In Italy I was well-disciplined, well-educated about diet, sleeping right and living right so I say to myself yeah, I could have had another five years but I had the 15 years before that.
If you had said to me at the beginning I would start at Charlton and play for Luton under a great manager in David Pleat, then Villa, Pisa, Celtic, Chelsea, I would have laughed in your face. At that time as well, centre-halves wouldn’t move as often, they would stay at one club for eight or nine years and maybe get their testimonial, but I moved every two years and played in three countries which was a great opportunity. Chelsea did feel like my final destination.
What I really appreciate is that it is over 25 years since I have played for the club but the affection that I receive from Chelsea supporters is amazing. For people to still remember you making a positive contribution to their club in that way, and showing that respect for you, that is great and really makes me feel good.