Paul Elliott CBE MBE returned recently to a Stamford Bridge where his star lit up the Chelsea sky very brightly but all too briefly back in the early 1990s. The reason he was back at the Bridge was to talk about two months in particular.
One is the current month of October – or more specifically its role as Black History Month. The other was the last month of September but way back 30 years ago, and the ramifications of what happened to Paul during one game in Liverpool in 1992.
Paul’s signing for Chelsea from the Scottish top division two summers earlier was a big deal for the club at the time. It felt a step-up from the average level of recruitment at the Bridge in that era, the capturing of a highly regarded and coveted central defender, with Serie A experience and the potential to take the team up to a new level.
It went well from the start – with Paul becoming the first black player to score on his Chelsea debut and later when he was handed the captain’s armband on occasions, the first player of colour to skipper the side.
But it was to screech to a halt with a career-ending challenge on him, a moment he discusses here among many other subjects including his highly successful post-playing projects (he is chair of the FA’s Inclusion Advisory Board and his work in this field led him to become the first player from the Premier League era to be awarded a CBE), in this special interview as we mark Black History Month, which is where the talking begins…
Paul, what is your opinion on Black History Month as a concept?
I subscribe to celebration and I can understand the empathy and the rationale behind Black History Month. I’ve been having conversations about celebrating the Windrush anniversary, which is in June, and I think this kind of area should be all round because this is the journey to where we are now but that said, Black History Month does give a focal point which is always important.
I understand why some people ask why we just celebrate this during Black History Month, but I think it focuses minds to the significance and the importance, and across football black history is celebrated in Black History Month and sometimes the messaging could be eroded if it was over the year.
Presumably there are younger generations of fans who may not be as familiar with the earlier black history in football as the older fans…
That's a reason why the celebration is always important, not just to remember but to articulate the journey and the challenges. There's so many shoulders that people have stood on, to create where we are now.
It's important younger generations understand that journey. Players like myself stood on the shoulders of Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson, Garth Crooks. I was the next generation that followed on the back of that, and people need to understand that because there were challenging times, on the pitch especially.
In some ways you were part of a second generation of black players at Chelsea, in that Paul Canoville, Keith Jones and Keith Dublin suffered regular abuse from a significant proportion of the support, but later Clive Wilson was more accepted from the start of his time at the club, as then were players like Ken Monkou and you, enjoying an instantly good rapport.
I think a lot of it was because I’d had a good career. Chelsea was a huge move for me but I was at Celtic before, in Italy before then, Aston Villa before then in the First Division, Luton Town in the First Division. I started at Charlton and I remember playing as a 16-year-old kid at Stamford Bridge, and it wasn't for the faint-hearted. Those are experiences that shaped me, particularly mentally to give you that character.
I've seen so many players over my time who have been traumatised mentally as a consequence of those behaviours and that's been my sadness, because many of them were extremely talented players that could really forge a career in the game, but couldn't cope mentally. That's not a sign of weakness. I feel sorry for them not having the tools and the support mechanisms to cope with that, because it does affect so many people in different ways.
Issues of race or discrimination are actually a societal problem, so until you resolve society, you can't resolve football, but what you can do is what a lot of clubs, stakeholders, the law, are now doing which is addressing people's behaviours inside stadiums, because it's like my workplace and everybody has that fundamental right to work in a racism-free environment, and footballers are no different.
What we've got today are 21st Century challenges and the great thing is we've got a generation of players who are exceedingly powerful, and are now using their power to great effect. We've got a great England manager in Gareth Southgate who has been the advocate and the lead for the FA and the England players in anti-discrimination, and I think the biggest single change now has been the influence of the players on those issues.
With Chelsea having a reputation at the time, was that ever in your mind before deciding to come here?
Yeah it was, but that didn't stop me because I played in Scotland for two years, I was in Italy for two years before then. Scotland was a very challenging environment, the same issues I got down south, and I had it in Italy as well, players just being abused for the colour of their skin.
I saw it as a great challenge, but I had that previous experience and also living through it as a family. My family was the Windrush generation and we grew up with ‘no Irish, no blacks, no dogs’. My mum always embedded into my mindset that you've got to work twice as hard, be twice as good to have an opportunity because that was her attitude to life.
So I’ve gone through my whole life with that in mind and I just wanted to prove people wrong, break down barriers and lead by the quality of my football and my leadership and my character. I was told years after when I finished the game that I was Chelsea’s first black captain, the first black captain in the Premier League, the first black English player to play in Italy, but I wasn't aware at the time.
When you came to Chelsea in 1991 you were a sought-after player and you started well with a goal in each of your first two home games. By the end of the season you were Chelsea Player of the Year. There is an interview you gave shortly after that award to the club’s newspaper at the time, Onside, where you were asked about the standard of the top flight and you replied you thought it would be harder.
Yeah, that's right but remember I had played in other top-quality environments as well. There was a step up from Celtic but it wasn't as I thought it would be and I could cope, maybe because for a centre-half I was mobile and I was quick on the ground and I could play a bit. You had to concentrate more but it was a natural adjustment.
I virtually moved every two years because I think my characteristics were sought after. My first game in Italy was against AC Milan and look at the team sheet - Van Basten, Rijkaard, Gullit, Baresi, Maldini, Costacurta, Evani. My second game, Napoli, Maradona.
What is quite prescient in the interview is your answer to the question will the Premier League (starting the following season) lead to a rise in standards. You were hopeful and in favour of the new structure.
It’s grown through the roof and it's been unbelievable. Now you've got to be an athlete to play in the Premier League, with the pace of the game now, but what I love as well is you see players who are not the quickest across the ground but their range of technique, spatial awareness and vision means they are already two steps ahead. There were some players like that in my day - Kenny Dalglish was exactly the same, he knew what he was doing with the ball before he received it.
You were also asked if racism in English football had declined since you had been away. Back then you could see matters moving in the right direction.
I've always wanted to speak positively about it and some of the big pieces of work I've done regarding equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), Chelsea have been very supportive of under the former regime, and what’s really pleased me is with the new owners, the whole EDI culture is very central to their thinking and that’s a credit to their values.
Everything in an organisation, from your staffing to your boards, councils, committees, on the pitch, off the pitch, EDI has to be embedded in the organisational DNA.
It's not just about the social and the human value, but also the economic imperative of diversity because clubs are global brands. The Premier League is shown in 195 countries, 4.6 billion people annually watch the game. Staggering!
We're on a journey now with equality, diversity and inclusion and that's been my work on the field as a player and in doing what I've done in the 30 years since. I co-founded Kick It Out in 1992 with Lord Ouseley and the PFA and I've seen videos of me back then with a curly perm and a moustache and I think look what has happened to me 30 years later! It's been a hell of a journey.
In stadiums, people’s behaviour, the diversity, it's better now than it's ever been, but with social media, that's a huge challenge but one I think people are addressing. The government's addressing, it, football is addressing it, and I'm part of that, with my work with the Online Safety Bill. It’s an ongoing process, a very complex process, but I think there is an aspiration to get to the destination. with the Online Safety Bill.
So although it is thought generally there has been a decline in behaviour inside grounds since lockdown, you don’t see racism in stadiums worsening?
I think there's a lot of big issues of racism at grassroots but at matches in the modern game there is a lot of self-policing. People can take photos of people now, take photos of seats. You can go online and instantly send your report in to Kick It Out or the club and it's going to be investigated. There is a kind of zero tolerance. I think that's genuinely there.
Were you surprised the Chelsea fans voted you Player of the Year in your first season?
Yeah, I was, I’d had a good season, but I was over the moon. I remember the night, it was at a club in Vauxhall and I remember it was a fabulous night and I was so proud.
It was a kind of continuity on the back of Celtic [where Paul had been Scotland’s Players’ Player of the Year the previous season] and I was at that right age of 27, 28 and it felt great because the supporters’ opinions of you are very important. It's hard for players sometimes when they don't have that support. When you feel the supporters can't take to you, there’s nothing worse psychologically. It doesn't matter how much your players value you, you want the respect of the people who watch too.
It's just amazing, everywhere I've gone in the world I've met Chelsea fans who want to talk to me. It's unbelievable that people don't forget you and you also meet the next generation. It means a lot. I'm very lucky.
Should we have won the FA Cup in that first year, going out to Second Division side Sunderland in the quarter-finals with Norwich lined up in the semis?
I remember the replay in Sunderland after we conceded a late equaliser here, that was a tough game. That was my biggest disappointment because that was the best opportunity we had to get to the final and it wasn't a great Liverpool side that beat Sunderland in it.
Look out for part two of the interview in which Paul discusses his playing-career-ending injury, the court case that followed, what he hopes for from the projects he now devotes his energies to and his admiration for Raheem Sterling.