Personal Narrative

John Terry vs. Paul Canoville: an eight year-old boy learns a lesson about racism in sports

by Bret Higgins

I wrote a piece last week at the Rocky Mountain Blues blog on the John Terry case. The Chelsea FC captain had to answer to allegations of racial abuse of an opponent and I used crude humour to make light of a situation I thought was a waste of taxpayer’s money. If the verdict is to be believed then I would say I am justified in that choice. But let me be clear – racism is something I have abhorred since I learned what it was.

I don’t consider myself a Chelsea fan. It’s more important than that. I am Chelsea. It’s in my blood. I was born a fan and have been wearing royal blue since before memory serves.

So what I want to talk about, in the wake of the John Terry racism trial, makes me ashamed to be Chelsea through and through sometimes. I’m going to tell you a story related to Mr. Paul Canoville. Now, I’ve never met Paul Canoville and I am going to wager that not many of the Rocky Mountain Blues know the name or his significance to Chelsea’s history: Paul was Chelsea’s first black player. He joined the club in December of 1981, during the height of football hooliganism as I know it.

We’ll take a trip back to my childhood and I’ll tell you a story about how Paul Canoville affirmed my stance on racism: It’s 1984 and as my little brother, Karl, is considered old enough to pay attention, we can go to Chelsea games now. I’ll never forget walking up those concrete steps to the whole stand roaring out “One Man Went to Mow” and seeing the ground unfurled before my eyes. The blue and white bar scarves, the bomber jackets, the fences.

Those early games have become a blur – the details fade, leaving a scrapbook of images held together by the glue of childlike wonderment. For instance, during my second game, a 3-0 win over Ipswich Town on my 8th birthday (October 27th), Doug Rougvie signed my programme during the game. You didn’t misread that. During the game. The game was ten or fifteen minutes under way and the ball comes over to where I am when man mountain Rougive pulls a pen from his sock, demands my programme, which I gladly push rolled up through the fence, and he signs it right there and then takes the throw in. Mind boggling, but legend making.

And while it never sunk in at the time, those early moments of pure elation were also marred by racism.

At my third or fourth game of the season Paul Canoville scored a cracker to earn us a draw. It’s the closest I have ever come to watching Chelsea lose at home. (I don’t know how talismanic that is, but after attending well over fifty home games, I’ve never seen us lose. In fact, I’ve only seen us lose in person once anywhere and that was at Liverpool.) So after the game, Dad takes us to the Princess Royal so we can wait for the underground to clear up a bit to make it easier for him to get a six and eight year-old kid home in relative safety.

In the pub dad’s talking to his friends, Reg and Edna. They’re a lovely couple. I thought they were ancient at the time, though I’m guessing now they were in their late sixties. I’m happy drinking a coke or something when I hear two big burly men in royal blue lamenting the loss. This rings untrue to my ears, so I walk over to them.

I ask why they’re bemoaning a defeat when we were surely saved from the clutches of a zero point outing by a world-class cracking effort from the erstwhile Mr. Canoville. I remember having my hair ruffled and one of the men saying, “Sorry son, don’t you know black goals don’t count?” I walked away.

I’m not going to say much more on the matter than this: Not only are they not Chelsea like I am, they’re not worthy of the blue they wore. Paul Canoville may have been inconsistent, but can anyone blame him? Who can perform at the highest level week in week out when the very people you’re playing for don’t want you there and are singing racist chants at you during the warm up? How can you concentrate as a player when you’re the target of monkey howls?

I don’t know. I’ll never know or be able to understand it. Ever.

But if I ever get the chance to speak one on one with Paul the first thing I know I will say is “I’m sorry. I’m sorry you pulled on the shirt of the club I love only to have our supporters fail you as human beings.” I would say the same thing to Keith Dublin and any other Chelsea player who through colour or religious belief has suffered at the hands of the fans they played for.

One thing I do hope is that those Chelsea ‘fans’ who believed what they did then and who still believe it now have nothing but a hollowness in their bones as they mourn FA Cup Finals won with goals by Eddie Newton, Didier Drogba and Ramires and a Champion’s League Final won by goals and penalties from Didier Drogba and Ashley Cole. I wonder what they think about all the games Chelsea has won thanks to the efforts of hispanic and black players who have given their all for the club. Oh yeah… what about the league titles won on the backs of goals by players like Anelkalouda (Nicolas Anelka, Salomon Kalou, Florent Malouda) or the revolution in the mid ’90s led by Ruud Gullit?

But it doesn’t stop there. What about England International John Barnes, who had bananas thrown at him, or Justin Fashanu, who suffered not only from racism but also had to deal with abuse for being gay, as well? The mind boggles once more, only now for still another reason.

When racism first reared its ugly head in my life that fateful day when I was eight years old I immediately knew that it doesn’t matter what language you speak or what the colour of your skin is. In pure regard to football Chelsea players all bleed blue and if you give your all on the pitch then no matter what the result that’s good enough for me. It’s shameful to think that those grown men could not come to the same conclusion, but I thank them for the life lesson.

Now my fellow Rocky Mountain Blues know one of the reasons the ’83/’84 kit is so important to me…


xpost from Rocky Mountain Blues

Bret Higgins an English ex-pat and IT Specialist working for KUSA 9News in Denver.

6 replies »

  1. Sorry to upset your memories. I wondered what match it was. Paul Canoville never scored in a 1-1 draw at home. After that game against Ipswich he scored 3 goals that season.
    2 att Sheff Weds in the LC 4-4 match and 1 at home to Millwall when we lost 3-2 in the FA Cup. The following season he scored one goal which turned out to be his last for the club. (At home to Soton when we won 2-0).
    The only home draw he scored in was in a 2-2 against Pompey on 27th December 83.
    The only other draw he scored in was a 1-1 at Fulham in April 83.
    So seems you have your wires crossed?