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An interview with Paul Canoville: Getting to know Chelsea FC’s first black footballer.

On April 24th, 2020, I took on a fantastic opportunity to have a chat (and host a mini-interview) with Paul Canoville, ex-professional footballer for Chelsea FC. Joining the club in 1982, Paul was also the first black footballer to play for Chelsea.

Image credit: Evening Standard

Straight off the bat, Paul told me how he was keeping busy during the unprecedented and trying times we are all facing – a Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown. Playing music, cooking live on Facebook, and keeping in touch with family and friends were amongst the hobbies and pastimes Paul mentioned.

The cooking part didn’t surprise me too much… who isn’t listening to the radio and baking banana bread right now?!

Moving towards a slightly more serious topic, I asked about Paul’s foundation, the Paul Canoville Foundation. Set up in 2015, this foundation is an important body that helps young people cope with both mental and physical adversity. This is achieved by equipping young people with the necessary tools and life skills to persevere through hard times. Facing issues together, and not in silence, is a key ethos of the foundation.

Alongside his foundation and motivational speaking in colleges, Paul is also working on a project at St Matthew's in Brixton. The project helps youngsters break away from the trauma that surrounds knife crime incidents in the area. One example of this trauma involves dealing with the loss of life that results from knife violence – an issue that certainly needs all the support it can get it. Putting a positive spin on things and a smile on my face, Paul told me how he recently took a group of younger people associated with the project to a football game in Wembley. The trip was something the kids would always remember, providing light in what can appear to be a very dark tunnel at times.

My talk with Paul reinforced to me the importance that these relatively small, but very powerful experiences, have on young people that are struggling with mental health and/or depression. Not only can we help our young people now, but we can also create a more positive environment for future generations. Children grow up to be kinder and more supportive adults, effectively producing a circle of positivity.

A little while into the conversation, Paul brought up his own mental health, detailing how during some of the hardest moments of his life (such as a football career ending way before its time due to injury, having cancer, and dealing with drug addiction), were all faced alone and in silence. Resulting from this was poor mental health and periods of depression.

Paul Canoville helped Chelsea win the old Second Division in 1984. Image credit Sky News

Paul highlighted how isolating and demoralising mental health can be, describing how there would be good and bad days that occurred without any sense of warning. Speaking reminiscently on the matter, Paul told me that during those harder moments in his life he was out of his comfort zone and embarrassed to show any uneasiness when around other people.

Expanding on why he suffered in silence, Paul mentioned that coming from a Caribbean background and growing up in a traditional household was one part of the problem. Within ethnic minority communities, despite how close-knit they seem to be, healthy dialogue and sharing feelings between children and parents do not always occur as often as we'd like. Furthermore, being both male and from the black community also contributed to feelings of not being able to speak out.

Helping to remove these types of barriers that stop young people from reaching out when they most need it, Paul is an ambassador for non-profit sports organisation KickOff@3. Paul and the KickOff@3 team work hard to boost the confidence and resilience of young vulnerable people through sport. With an all-inclusive and welcoming philosophy, KickOff@3 and Paul are able to support young people from the most vulnerable of backgrounds, such as young BAME men.

Focusing on Paul’s professional football career, I asked about the highs and lows that accompanied his time in the sports industry. The abundance of racial abuse that Paul faced in the early ‘80s is not unspoken or unheard of. As Chelsea FC’s first black footballer, it was no easy ride for Paul.

Paul explained the rules of the game back then, such as the number of substitutes allowed on the pitch, and how crucial the timing was when a manager made that decision to sub you in (it was all quite educational!). It wasn’t until Paul began to describe his pre-game rituals, and the moments leading up to the first time he stepped on a football pitch, that I could feel the adrenaline pumping through me. The nerves, excitement and anxiety I felt in that moment of Paul’s highly descriptive part of the conversation were rare emotions I haven’t experienced in quite a while.

Sobering me up quite abruptly, Paul told me how he “couldn’t wait for the whistle to blow quick enough” after the immense racial abuse he experienced during his debut match for Chelsea. I felt a sadness when Paul told me that simply due to the colour of his skin, the abuse had reached an enormously loud level, mostly from fans of his own team.

It took Paul three years to win over his fans. It was during a Chelsea vs. Sheffield match in which Chelsea was 3-nil down in the first half. Paul scored two goals, ending the game on an equaliser of 4-all. Fans were finally chanting his name. They sang for him. The game had changed.

Using this as a learning curve, Paul is now an advocate for eradicating racism in the game of football today. Upon asking him what could be done to help bring the issue further along, Paul mentioned how the fans can assist in removing racism from football. Coming together through social media or public protests are some of the ways to show the racist minority that their actions and attitudes will not be tolerated, especially in sport. Wrapping up the topic, Paul told me that things are indeed changing, but more needs to be done.

Bringing the call to an end, I thought I’d ask Paul the following question:

If you could tell your younger self one piece of advice, coming from the position you’re in now and the life experiences you’ve had, what would it be?”

“Please ask for help”. This simple yet empowering statement was Paul’s answer to my last question. Paul made it clear that whoever you are and whatever your background is if you need help, it is imperative you ask for it. Telling me how counselling helped changed his life, he wants to help other young vulnerable people gain the same sort of resources.

My conversation with Paul was great. Despite the darker and more adult themes that we covered, I left the phone call refreshed and uplifted. Paul’s life and his experiences have led him to where he is today, helping other people in similar positions he has also faced. His foundation is wonderful, and the projects and collaborations he takes on, such as with St Matthews and KickOff@3, are inspiring. We could all learn something from individuals like Mr Paul Canoville.

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