As Chelsea marks Black History Month and following the opening of a suite at Stamford Bridge in his honour, Paul Canoville shares his experience of overcoming racism as the first black player to represent the Blues at first-team level, and his pride at the part he played in changing things for the better in an exclusive interview.
Canoville’s contribution to the club and role in breaking down the race barrier at Chelsea and in football more widely was recognised in June of this year when the Centenary Hall in the Shed End Stand of Stamford Bridge was renamed as the Paul Canoville Suite.
On 12 April 1982, at the age of 21, he made history when he came off the bench to replace Clive Walker for his Chelsea debut in a 1-0 win away at Crystal Palace, becoming the first black person ever to play in a men's first-team match for the club.
However, what should have been the proudest moment of the young winger’s life, as he fulfilled his dream of becoming a professional footballer, was marred when he suffered racist abuse from a sizeable proportion of those at the game to support Chelsea, and that prejudice was something he would be forced to endure in games that followed.
Canoville did so with dignity and strength by refusing to let the undoubted pain show, while focusing on proving that ignorant section wrong with his performances on the pitch, despite often having to face adversity on his own.
‘Being told if you scored a goal it didn’t count because you’re black, no young player, or no young kid, should have to go through that,’ says Canoville in the interview.
‘Every time I thought I had to play twice as better than my team-mates just to get their approval. It would have been quite easy to walk away and say I’m not playing for this, but then you’re allowing those same ignorant people to beat you.’
He went on to provide plenty of memorable moments in a Chelsea shirt, perhaps none more so than when he famously came on at half-time with the Blues trailing Sheffield Wednesday 3-0 in a cup tie to inspire a dramatic comeback, but arguably his biggest contribution at Stamford Bridge was to pave the way for the many great black players who have starred for Chelsea in the years since.
The change in attitudes he helped set in motion is also evidenced by the way he won over many of those people who initially subjected him to racist abuse and by the fantastic welcome he is now given by all supporters every time he returns to the Bridge today.
His impact was summed up perfectly by the words of one fan Canoville, who has worked with Chelsea on anti-discrimination and education projects, met at a game in 2004.
‘I saw at least six black players and a guy knocked me, sitting there, and he said “Canners, that’s because of you, you made this happen”.'
You can watch the first part of the interview in the video above, as Canoville recalls his early experiences as a footballer facing racism and his pride at the changes that have taken place since. Part two of Paul Canoville: Paving the Way will follow on Thursday.