Paul Canoville was signed up in 1981 at the age of 19. From his first match he endured a torrid of racist abuse which continued for three years – but 40 years later black footballers still suffer on and off the pitch
Ex-footballer Paul Canoville was on the edge of his seat as he watched the penalty shootout at the finals of the Euro 2020.
The nail-biting last minutes of the match would determine if England would win their first major football tournament in 55 years.
When black players Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka all missed their penalties Paul said he knew what would happen next.
As Chelsea’s first ever black player he was subjected to a catalogue of racist abuse which was so vile that he thought about walking off the pitch and never returning.
Four decades on and the 59-year-old grandad said he knew Rashford, Sancho and Saka would have to endure the same but this time it wouldn’t just be on the pitch – it would be on social media.
Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
He told the Mirror: “At least with the abuse I faced it was at the match and once I finished playing football I could forget about it. But now social media allows black footballers to be abused 24/7 with very little done to stop it.
“When it comes to racism it has moved from the terraces to social media. This is the new platform for racism in the sport and more needs to be done to wipe it out.”
Paul spoke to the Mirror exclusively after police made 11 arrests in connection with racist abuse towards the three black players back in July. The accused ranged in age from 18 to 63.
Chief Constable Mark Roberts, National Police Chiefs’ Council football policing lead, said: “There are people out there who believe they can hide behind a social media profile and get away with posting such abhorrent comments.
“They need to think again – we have investigators proactively seeking out abusive comments in connection to the match and, if they meet a criminal threshold, those posting them will be arrested.
Paul told the Mirror: “Taking a penalty is not an easy thing to do so for these three young players to receive abuse like this is sickening. But it has been going on for far too long.”
In 1981, Paul signalled a welcoming change in football after being signed to Chelsea as black footballers at the top were far and few between.
Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson, who all played for West Bromwich Albion and were affectionately known as ‘The Three Degrees’, were among the small number of black players.
Paul was not only the same age as Bukayo at the time but both grew up in Southall in west London so he resonates with the talented teenager.
“Saka is just 19 and from the same neck of the woods as me so I understand where he’s coming from and it’s a big thing to be representing his country at such a young age,” he said.
“What happened to Saka and the others shows nothing has changed since the 80s when I was on the pitch but then racism isn’t just a football thing – it’s a society thing.”
Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
Recalling the first time he was subjected to racist abuse, Paul said he was unaware of the club’s ‘history’ and he was full of pride when he ran on to the pitch for the first time.
“My belly was chewing me up as I was so nervous,” he said.
“I heard shouting and then I realised they were shouting at me. We were playing against Crystal Palace so I thought it was their fans trying to put me off but then I realised it was from the Chelsea terraces.
“They were shouting n***er go home, calling me a golliwog and some even threw bananas at me. I was shocked. Everyone could hear what they were saying and no one said a thing or asked me how I was until my manager consoled me.”
That was the beginning of the horrific racist abuse Paul faced from his own fans whenever he played for his team.
He said: “It was at both home and away games and no one called it out. It was like it wasn’t happening as people just buried their heads in the sand.”
“The National Front (a far-right political party) were big and firm back then. They would be outside the stadium giving out leaflets and no one dared to say anything.
“I especially hated it when I was at home at Stamford Bridge as the fans would really give me hell. All I would hear is n****r go home.
“I remember one time I scored the first goal and the racist fans said it didn’t count because it was scored by ‘the n****r’.
“This went on for three years and it affected my performance which meant I had to play twice as good as the other players.”
“I must say that it was only a minority of fans but enough of them to smash my confidence. But, I had to play lip service and get on with it otherwise I’d be seen as the aggressor.”
Ian Vogler/Daily Mirror)
Paul said the turning point finally came when his team were playing Sheffield Wednesday in the Milk Cup and they were losing 3-0.
He explained: “I was sitting on the subs bench and was called to the pitch. I scored two goals and that’s when the racist fans were silenced. I hardly heard any chants after that.”
After leaving Chelsea, Paul played for Reading where he said he was welcomed by fans there with open arms.
“It was very multicultural there so I wasn’t subjected to the same racism but you speak to any black footballer and they will have a story to tell you,” he said.
“I really want to see something done now. It’s been 40 years since I had racist abuse hurled at me and it still continues today albeit on social media.”
“These social media companies really need to take more responsibility. I knew that the minute those three players missed their penalties the racist abuse would come in thick and fast.
“Fans have stopped throwing bananas on the pitch but they are doing the equivalent on social media websites. Enough is enough.”
Paul is also calling for more to be done to stop people using anonymous accounts to target black players.
“There needs to be some sort of identification process,” he said .
“If you go to open a bank account you need proof of who you are so why can’t the same be asked for social media accounts?
“We need to make sure there is no platform available for racists to target footballers like this.”
Paul is now using his ugly experiences on the pitch to help the next generation overcome any obstacles they may face.
In 2015 the dad-of-nine set up the Paul Canoville Foundation which aims to empower children and teach them more about the importance of diversity.
This includes Paul hosting workshops in schools where he delivers anti-bullying messages and gives talks to youngsters on how they can boost their confidence.
He said: “My foundation is very important to me. I want to ensure the next generation is strong and able to cope with issues like racism as it is sadly very much a part of our society.”
For more information about Paul’s foundation visit paulcanovillefoundation.co.uk
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