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Hunty's Column: The Paul Canoville Story (Part 1)

Our weekly columnist John Hunt spoke with ex Reading man Paul Canoville last week and found out his inspirational story. Here is part one, including his childhood and time at Chelsea...

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Footballers with a Caribbean background are now common place in football, with Jobi McAnuff and Garath McCleary fine examples of quality players who have represented their country whilst playing for Reading FC.

In the early 1980s England was a very different place, with strikes, high unemployment and the appearance of far right parties like the national front.

This was also a time when black footballers were just starting to make a name for themselves in the game such as the likes of the late Laurie Cunningham and Justin Fashanu alongside Cyril Regis and Viv Anderson who became the first black player to play for England.

One name that older Reading fans will remember is Paul Canoville, who graced Elm Park in the late 1980s before a career ending injury. This week I had the absolute pleasure of speaking to Paul about his life, career and how he uses his life experiences to help others. Paul's award winning book Black & Blue is definitely worth a read if you get a chance but for those that don't know here's a brief history.

Paul was the first black player to play for Chelsea before he was told to leave the club after defending himself against the racial abuse of a teammate. He then joined Reading where he helped change the style of football.
After trying to live a normal life outside the game, his life descended into a downward spiral of severe depression mixed with drug addiction that resulted in two failed suicide attempts. He has also battled and beaten cancer and had to live through the horror of watching his young son die in his arms.

This would have beaten most people, but not Paul. After getting himself well, Paul has used his experience to set up his foundation to help others as well a new project to help keep youngsters away from guns and knives.

Growing Up

Growing up, Paul lived with his mum and sister and he said being brought up in a Caribbean culture meant he did as he was told by his mum: do his chores and then he would spend a lot of time in his room at home. His escape from this very disciplined life was his football where he could be himself and be free from the pressures.

He said he didn't have any coaching and that it was all pure natural talent and meant he could easily play better than those older than him. His mum never ever watched him play or showed an interest in his football because she expected him to get a good education and a decent job.

He really missed having a male role model growing up as his dad wasn't there, and he ended up hanging out with a group of older kids when he was a teenager and admits he wasn't a bad lad just a bit easily led and got himself into a bit of trouble. He would be fearful of his mum finding out because she was such a strict disciplinarian. This fear remained with him through his adult years which Paul felt is part of his culture. He had to grow up fast before his time, which is something I can identify with.

Racial Abuse

So on to Chelsea, and Paul felt he flew through the reserves and then all of a sudden he made his debut as sub. Warming up he heard all the racial abuse but turned around and realised it was from his own fans and he couldn't believe it.

Asked how he coped Paul just said he went into his own world, and again part of his culture was to just take it and not talk about it. He blocked it out which is theme that continued throughout his life and many others who suffered mental health problems did the same. He didn't want to complain as this was his career. He just had to leave the ground non confrontational that was the way.

Imagine what it would be like when you have put in decent performances on a regular basis only to be continually abused because of the colour of your skin. Paul still can't believe it took almost three seasons and a game changing performance against Sheffield Wednesday before the fans started chanting his name in a positive light. In the next home game he couldn't believe it and actually wanted to stop and listen to it.

Even now over 30 years later, he is still surprised that it take that long to be accepted as part of the club. Can you imagine what that must feel like? What happened next on a pre season tour was the final straw. Three top players at the club at the time were pissed, and one of them who Paul won't name, racially abused him and he knocked him out. Paul had no support from the two other players.

The next day the same player came at him with a golf club, before what Paul thought was a cooling off period as he got lift back to Chelsea with the physio Norman Medhurst whilst everyone else went to the coach. Only did he find out the next day the same abuser had a brick in his bag on that coach to continue the fight.

Then later Paul gets a call from the assistant manager Ian McNeal to ask if he wanted to go to Millwall. Paul can laugh about it now but he said can you imagine the amount of abuse I would have got there after what I received at Chelsea?! He then realised he was being bombed out of the club.

In those days top level clubs would refuse to deal with other clubs in same league but Paul just wanted to play football and was on the verge of joining Frank McLintock's Brentford after nailing it in a training session and was about to sign when he got a call from Reading's manager at the time Ian Branfoot to say don't sign I'm coming to get you. And with that he was staying at the manager's house overnight and upon getting up and leaving his room the next morning, the gaffer's daughters screamed as they had never seen a guy from his background before...

Keep an eye out for part two tomorrow when Paul discusses his time at Reading, as well as the mental health issues that continue to be so pertinent today...