Black History Month: Chelsea players before Paul Canoville

Famously, Paul Canoville played a major part in Chelsea Football Club history by becoming the first black player to appear in our men’s first team. But the story for black players at the club did not start there. As part of Black History Month, club historian Rick Glanvill has researched three who preceded Canoville, dating back to the 1930s, and he shares their tales here…

Next April it will be 40 years since Paul Canoville replaced Clive Walker and suffered horrendous racist abuse from a sizeable proportion of the travelling Chelsea contingent in the Selhurst Park stands.

It was Paul’s honour – and burden – to become the first black player to feature for the club’s men’s first team. His story of perseverance and fortitude in the face of discrimination, and the trail he blazed so others of similar heritage could follow and thrive is widely known.

What is less recognised is that predecessors of his, stretching back over 83 years from the present day, had already starred for our reserves and youth team. But for the intercession of bad luck, serious injury and myriad unknown factors, each might have become Chelsea’s pathfinder black player. We tell the stories of three of them today.


Fred Hanley

The first likely lad, 21-year-old Liverpudlian Freddie Hanley, was lauded on the back pages of the Daily Express in August 1938. It is a measure of the atmosphere endured by players of colour before and since that the headline ‘Hanley Will Put Colour In Chelsea’ is followed by copy praising his potential with enduring stereotypical references to his ‘difference’.

‘From the legends of talent which have followed him from north to south he is going to put a lot of colour into Chelsea football,’ the article starts. ‘His name is Hanley. They found him playing great stuff for Skelmersdale, [a] club near Liverpool.

‘Take Hanley out of his studded boots and he still tops six feet. His husky-shouldered build carries his height perfectly, and when he smiles, which is often, he smiles wide. Hanley is grateful to Chelsea. Because when the future seemed to stop at monotony of the daily shores in Liverpool, Chelsea invited him to step up into fame.

‘You see the point of Hanley’s appreciation: some clubs have a colour bar.

‘But Chelsea have always been broad-minded. Provided the talent is there, so long as a player can be expected to behave reasonably, Chelsea will stand out against any bias.’

The ‘colour bar’ point is well made, and not just in football. Nine years, earlier in 1929, the National Sporting Club had created Rule 24 which forbid any boxer from becoming a British champion except those with ‘two white parents’. That particular bar was not raised until 1948.

Although there may have been black or mixed heritage players at Stamford Bridge in the past, Hanley was almost certainly the first black professional on the books at Stamford Bridge. Like each of his successors up until the 1980s he was also the only person of colour in the squad. For him ‘minority’ was not just a political banding but a stark, everyday reality.

‘I expect much from Hanley,’ then Chelsea manager Leslie Knighton told the Express. ‘I can see him shaping into one of the great personalities of the game.’

The paper hailed the youngster as ‘the most interesting Chelsea signing of the close season’. That was despite Knighton forking out the second-highest transfer fee of the summer for left-winger Alf Hanson who, coincidentally, was the player Hanley loved to watch at Anfield as a boy. 

For his talent to be worthy of such anticipation, Hanley had overcome remarkable difficulties. He was born in the infirmary of Brownlow Hill workhouse on 17 June 1917 to Margaret Hanley, a Toxteth widow in her mid-30s. Her husband Thomas, a fireman on the merchant steamship Zent, had died after a German submarine attack in February 1916.

A year-and-a-half later, Frederick arrived as the product of a brief liaison between the lonely widow and a seaman from Jamaica. Margaret quickly married again, but life was clearly a struggle as Freddie was in and out of the workhouse and Olive Mount Children’s Home.

It was Skelmersdale’s playing fields, not Strawberry Fields, that offered Fred a life chance and a big-time move to moneybags Chelsea. He was sent train tickets and instructions how to get to the Bridge, and put on wages of £1 6s per week, plus an extra week’s pay if he scored a goal. That handy bonus was earned 10 times in non-first team games in an impressive first season in 1938/39. More than once reporters highlighted the tricky, six-foot-plus forward with a reliable shot on him. Almost all also reminded him of the colour of his skin.

Knighton had great faith in his ‘star-to-be’ and, from a photo of the manager with his squad, the feeling was mutual. With arms of team-mate draped around him, while the boss is presented with a retirement present, Freddie looks very much part of the Chelsea furniture. Knighton’s departure, though, changed everything.

A month after Willie Birrell succeeded him and sacked the coaching staff in April 1939, Hanley was sold to Orient. Then came the war and the Army, during which time he played for a few Scottish clubs. The Chelsea dream was over.

Hanley died in Liverpool in 1988. In the 1990s a box of mementoes was sent to a relative and found to be a treasure trove kept by Freddie’s mother. It included his Chelsea contract, travel instructions and wage packets, tangible reminders of how close he came to a historic breakthrough.

Eric McKenzie

Little had changed by the time our next player arrived on the scene in August 1961. Among the new intake of Chelsea Juniors selected by manager Dick Foss and coach Dickie Spence to arrive at the Welsh Harp training ground in Hendon was Eric McKenzie, a Jamaica-born wing-half/defensive midfielder from Brixton.

Being part of the first cohort of Juniors to play home matches at the Bridge, Eric’s was a more public arrival in the Chelsea family than that of his predecessors and he was quickly noticed.

Fellow wing-half Ron Harris, two months younger than Eric, remembers ‘a player of immense promise. He was hard in the tackle like me, but he could pass too, whereas I would give the ball away!

‘He was just one of a lovely group we had then, not a jack-the-lad type, though we did all used to go for a pint. Eric just did his training and played well in matches.’

So well that the Daily Herald announced two teenage ‘potential internationals’ to the world in March 1962. Unfortunately, the language used to laud Eric’s performance and that of West Ham’s John Charles in an FA Youth Cup quarter-final is so replete with racial tropes it is highly offensive today.

From Shakespeare’s Iago to some of today’s bloggers and commentators, differentiating black players as fast and strong (‘a beast’), smiling sunnily, rather than technical and smart, betrays the same old colonialist mindset.

The writer had one thing right though: Charles did become the first black player to represent England at any level. In Chelsea’s cup victory, though, he had been ‘slightly overshadowed by McKenzie’.

The young Blues had won the previous two finals in the competition but, alongside ‘Chopper’ and John Hollins in midfield, Eric found himself on the losing side against Wolves in the semis. However, half the current senior squad had been guided to professionalism under Foss and Spence’s tutelage. The path into the first team was open and Eric was very much on track.

John Boyle was part of the next cohort in 1962/63 and was Eric’s team-mate for a year. ‘He was very hip and musical – the first black man I’d ever met,’ the Scot relates. ‘He was a lovely fella, a strong midfield player – a good worker, he could tackle, was a good passer, he could do all the stuff.’

John and the hip Brixtonite were in a gang of youngsters who would meet at Balham to take the Northern Line to Brent Cross, then the bus to training. ‘And when we played Scotland versus England at the Welsh Harp, with a surname like his, he had to be straight into the Scottish team.’

As Eric neared the end of his two-year apprenticeship the youth team continued to achieve great things. By May 1963 they had won seven of the past eight league titles, a third South-East Counties League Cup in 1962/63, the prestigious Cannes International Youth Festival for the third time (beating Roma 2-0) and won the Den Haag tournament in June 1963 at the expense of Tottenham.

This was a great Juniors side and Eric was a mainstay of it until disaster struck: in August 1963 the People newspaper reported: ‘Eric McKenzie, promising young Chelsea wing-half, has quit the game because of a knee injury.’

‘He would have been the first black player to play for Chelsea,’ notes Chopper, ‘not that we discussed that at the time. I didn’t know he’d been injured out of the game. Perhaps I should’ve showed him how I tackled – late.’

On the brink of a first-team breakthrough, Eric’s body had let him down. No one at the club seems to have heard from him after that, as is often the way in football.

We are not certain what became of Eric but assembling fragments of family history records has constructed a picture of a family that contributed much to British life. We believe Eric was born 5 September 1944 and arrived in the UK as part of the ‘Windrush generation’ with his mother Myrtle and sister Delphina (Della) in 1954.

If the research is correct, Eric became an actor after football: very much a family tradition, as it turns out. While Della was a dancer and actress whose stage act often included limbo dancing under a flaming pole, mother Myrtle had roles in several of film director Ken Loach’s ground-breaking 1960s films or TV plays, including ‘Cathy Come Home’. She also appeared in the film ‘Up The Junction’.

Loach remembered Myrtle well. ‘I liked her because she was truthful and had a warm, friendly presence,’ he recalls. ‘She would have understood what we were trying to do, from her own experiences. It sounds an extraordinary family.’

Before a dance tour of Germany whisked her away, Della also helped the renowned civil rights activist Claudia Jones run her pioneering Afro-Caribbean diaspora periodical West Indian Gazette, which had a circulation of 15,000.

Wider society was slowly changing. In 1963 the Bristol Omnibus Company, which had refused to employ black or Asian bus crews, recruited its first non-white conductor in September. In 1965 the Race Relations Act outlawed racial discrimination in public places, in a direct response to the colour bar, and legislation against bigotry was strengthened further over the years.

Eric’s thespian or political exploits, meanwhile, are sadly unrecorded though we believe he died in 1994. We would really like to hear from anyone who knew the family.

Derek Richardson

Along the highways of our lives there are moments that change everything. For Derek Richardson, our third black pioneer featured in this article, the ‘near-miss’ came at the start of the 1975/76 season. The Hackney-born goalkeeper had signed professional forms with Chelsea a year before when the seemingly eternal Peter Bonetti was still between the posts and John Phillips, boy wonder to the Cat man, was next in line.

Richardson had seen Bonetti leave for the USA in the summer and Phillips succeed him, but the 19-year-old was still third behind Steve Sherwood in the pecking order until fickle fate intervened. The unlucky Phillips had damaged ligaments in pre-season training and Sherwood’s blunder from a corner in the season-opener at Sunderland was a concern.

Then in a Monday session at Mitcham two days before a trip to West Bromwich Albion on 20 August, Sherwood suddenly ricked his back. The pain increased and he was rushed to physio Norman Medhurst’s room at the Bridge for intensive treatment.

It looked like the teenage understudy’s time had come, though manager Eddie McCreadie cautioned, ‘Richardson has a lot of potential but I did not want to rush him into League football just yet. However, if Sherwood is not fit I have no alternative.’

In the event the Medhurst magic worked and Sherwood played in a 0-0 at the Hawthorns. What could have been an auspicious debut for Richardson – Len Cantello’s dismissal left the Blues’ goal virtually untroubled all evening – became the classic missed opportunity. The loss was Chelsea’s too – Richardson would have become the club’s first-ever black men’s first team player.

McCreadie, who promoted youth talent when he could, was right about his credentials as heir to the Cat. In 1972/73, aged 16, Richardson kept 16 clean sheets in 39 appearances in all youth competitions, and the following season he topped that with 24 in 41 – a 59 per cent shut-out rate.

Remarkably, nine of his fellow fledglings – Brian Bason, Mike Brolly, Steve Finnieston, Ray Lewington, Teddy Maybank, John Sparrow, Clive Walker, Steve Wicks, Graham and Ray Wilkins – not only broke into the senior team but many became heroes to the Shed End faithful.

That honour was denied Richardson – especially after Bonetti bounded back on a monthly basis a few weeks later aged 33. Within a year McCreadie had let Richardson go and a predecessor in the Blues’ dugout, Dave Sexton, snapped him up for QPR.

There he became the Rs’ first black goalie and top-flight footballer in 1977 while still being very much second in line to the imposing Phil Parkes. After Parkes' shock departure in February 1979, Richardson, still not 23, hoped it was the break denied him down the road in SW6.

‘It’s down to me to make the most of my big chance,’ he said. Three years after leaving Chelsea, his stated aim was still to ‘prove McCreadie wrong’.

It was not to be and he moved on to Sheffield United, later becoming a cab driver.

Almost five years passed before Paul Canoville finally went one stage further than his forebears and changed the nature of Chelsea Football Club forever. We are left to ponder how much different the club would have been over the decades had any of these three talented hopefuls made the breakthrough five, 18, or even 44 years earlier.

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