It has the potential to be the most romantic narrative in football: the substitute coming on to win the game. For added romance, make it the substitute’s debut for the club. Want more? It’s his debut for a big club following a move from somewhere distinctly small-time. Not romantic enough? How about if our substitute comes on to make his debut following a move from non-league to professional football at, let’s say, a big club in West London. He gets a hard time from the crowd while warming up, but he’ll respond on the pitch. If you’ve watched enough films about football, you’ll know he’s going to come on, set a goal up and then score the winner. Ideally, that will be from the penalty spot, which speaks a far more refined and suspenseful cinematic language than slow-mo replays of Pele liberating France by bicycling a Bobby Moore cross past a Nazi goalkeeper.
It has the potential to be the most popular narrative in football, but the harsh reality of football is that potential usually ends in heartbreak. This is the narrative that plays out in Tony Awor’s 2015 documentary Black and Blue: the Paul Canoville Story, which charts the all-too-brief career of the first black footballer ever to play for Chelsea. At the centre of the film is Canoville’s compelling retelling of his debut. Chelsea are away at Crystal Palace and underneath his tracksuit top is the number 12 shirt. Manager John Neal has selected him for the matchday squad for the first time since his £5,000 signing from Hillingdon Borough. Canoville is itching to get on the pitch, his eyes shifting from Neal to the faltering Palace full-back he knows he’ll have the beating of, and back to Neal. The nod to start warming up will mean everything. It’s 1982 and teams can still only name and use one substitute in a match.
When the 53-year-old Canoville speaks to camera, he is so clearly transported back to that moment that the excitement sparkles in his eyes. He’s 20 again, and he’s full of confidence. He knows that the full-back won’t be able to live with his pace. Even now he’s growing impatient, shifting in his seat as the second half plods away. It’s just a shot of Canoville talking, but we’re there at Selhurst Park with him, and we feel his confidence and excitement when Neal finally tells him to warm up.
Paul Canoville’s career was ended by a knee injury within six years of his Chelsea debut, but when he talks about his ruptured cruciate ligament, it seems far less painful than what he endured in that warm-up on the touchline at Selhurst. “Sit down you black cunt” he recalls hearing as he started his stretches. More follows. The sudden vitriol jolts the scene, and life drains from Canoville’s face and from the screen, as he remembers realising that the abuse is coming from Chelsea supporters. This is not a romantic football narrative. By the time Paul Canoville steps on the pitch – replacing fans’ favourite Clive Walker, who himself turns out to be the game’s winning goalscorer – his appetite and excitement has given way to fear and confusion. He doesn’t want the ball. Any time it comes to him, he plays it back again. The final whistle can’t come soon enough. He won’t be skinning the full back. He doesn’t want to be there.
It’s a powerful sequence in an emotionally bruising film: the title Black and Blue clearly works on more than one level. Director Tony Awor, another ex-pro whose career ended unromantically early, aptly packs the Paul Canoville story into 45 minutes plus injury time. Awor couldn’t draw on vast banks of footage from Canoville’s career – which included a season and a half in the top flight a decade before the advent of the cash-rich Premier League and its rolling global 24-7 TV coverage – so the narrative is delivered through talking heads. Teammates Pat Nevin and Keith Dublin and Chelsea fans Omid Djallili and Trevor Nelson all contribute between images of Canoville’s playing career, but it’s the film’s eponymous hero himself who makes the greatest impact. He may not realise it (though probably does) but he’s got a gift for storytelling.
Black and Blue was aired on Sky on 22 March 2015 but hasn’t been repeated or made available on demand. Just under a million viewers watched it, which is impressive for a documentary broadcast on subscription TV with very little fanfare. It is a shame, however, that Awor’s work has so far been deprived of a global audience. Travel anywhere in the world right now and you’ll see kids (including grown up ones) wandering round in Chelsea shirts. Very few of them, however, will have any idea about the history of that shirt (including its beautiful 1984 incarnation replete with casual yellow horizontal pinstripes and the shortest of matching short shorts); they’re unlikely to know the name Paul Canoville, and they certainly haven’t paused to consider the abuse he had to tolerate – because of the colour of his skin – in order to do his job. Scenes of Chelsea idol Didier Drogba celebrating with the European Cup seem a universe away from those that “greeted” Canoville’s arrival at Stamford Bridge only 30 years previously.
Pickles goes to visit Canoville, who modestly adopts the moniker King Canners on Twitter, at his home to discuss his life, career, and the film. The visit demonstrates instantly – as if we didn’t already know – that Canners is particularly not averse to hostile environments. He’s a West London boy inhabiting a West Ham neighbourhood, a Chelsea legend living within spitting distance of the Boleyn Ground. We learn that, following his traumatic debut for the Blues, boss John Neal could only offer a consolatory shrug and the words “they’re the ones that pay your wages”; and so he had to pick himself up and get on with it, developing no doubt a skin better defined by its thickness than its colour.
Pickles imagines that Canners’ sense of humour has also aided his resilience. He’s a joker, in the most endearing sense of the word, as we learn before even meeting; when we call to arrange the visit, he angrily pretends that he’s never heard of Tony Awor and demands to know how we got his mobile number, before breaking into a hearty cackle, from thereon consistently warm and open and eager to talk. The film might not have supplied any romance, but the man delivers 80s nostalgia and baller banter in spades.
There are no laughs in Black and Blue. Bleakness pervades: from Canoville’s abuse from his own fans to abuse from his own teammates. He played only 79 times for Chelsea (often as a substitute) before being released to second division Reading, where his career ended just 16 games later.
Depression, attempted suicide, crack addiction, and three cancer battles followed, and it took a heart-breaking personal tragedy to make Canoville realise that something had to change, when his nine-day-old son Tye died in his arms. Canoville reveals that shooting the film, like the writing of his autobiography, was a form of therapy. He watched the film back once, alone, and it unsurprisingly reduced him to tears.
And yet there’s a sense of joy bubbling under the surface whenever we see Canoville talking about the football itself. “Did you have fun?” Pickles asks, and Canoville is off, like a slick winger zipping past a full-back, taking us through anecdote after anecdote. For every reference to the darker side of his playing career there’s a lighter tale of camaraderie and pleasure. Canners re-enacts first team versus reserve matches from the training ground for us, telling us how second-stringers would theatrically commentate on each other’s performances to make sure they were getting noticed. He talks fondly of his teammates’ encouragement in the dressing room immediately before his debut, and their resigned and awkward silences immediately afterwards. Most were sympathetic, but powerless to respond with any appropriate actions. Despite being a rival for a first-team place, Pat Nevin became a close friend and vital moral support for Canners. Black and Blue highlights the way Nevin fought Canners’ corner and spoke out about the club’s shameful racist following (and at least one teammate), but in person Canners more touchingly recollects how the two would sit on the team bus together taking turns to play cassettes while the rest of the squad played cards. It’s impossible to imagine in the modern game – Eden Hazard turning Willian onto Cat Stevens while John Terry organises a hand of gin rummy – but that’s what life was like before iPhones, kids.
Pickles is hoping for stories of early eighties glamour, but Canners’ wildest nightlife stories revolve around being dragged along to a late-night café on the Fulham Road by his seniors, and graduating from hot chocolates to shandies as he became a more established pro. Canners is happy to laugh at himself, even when the subtext is grim. When he tells us about being reunited with his father after an away game in Sheffield – a father whose presence would surely have made a huge difference to Canners life if he hadn’t abandoned his family when he was just a boy – he jokes about wondering how he was going to recognise him, before realising that there was only one other black face in the room.
Canners is a great storyteller, but he’s awful at accents. He puts on the voice of everyone he talks about, and all of them appear to be Scottish: from Welshman John Neal to Brian Clough to David Ginola. The Frenchman’s name comes up when we talk of Canners’ legacy. He’s seen more of the world as a result of the film, and he’s still connected to Chelsea, with regular appearances on Chelsea TV.
Despite all his joking (there’s no off position on PC’s banter switch), Canners shows a humble pride when he talks about meeting big name footballers who speak to him as if *he* is the legend. More satisfying still, perhaps, are the encounters with Chelsea fans who now approach him and apologise for what they did to him in the eighties.
It’s remarkable how little bitterness Canoville expresses about his life and experiences. The club and its supporters were awful to him, but he still loves it. Football was cruel to him; nobody ever seemed to look after him, and his luck was shocking, retiring through injury before he even managed to take out an insurance policy.
And yet he regrets nothing, revelling instead in the fact that he once played for a huge club in the top tier of English football. Which in itself strikes Pickles as something of a victory, even if it’s not been won with a last-minute penalty from the debutant substitute.
Storytelling seems to have delivered redemption for King Canners. He recalls writing a CV for the first time in his life in order to become a classroom assistant, and it’s easy to see how inspiring he must be for kids. When he told his mum that he’d got a job in a school, it was the first time she said “well done” to him.
While fighting cancer, Canoville’s immune system couldn’t cope with day-to-day life in the classroom and he had to give it up, but Pickles is glad that he’s back visiting schools and talking to kids about his experiences and the importance of their education. When we meet, he’s using the Paul Canoville Foundation to raise awareness for Relief for Dominica. And all power to him; when Canoville tells you a story, you’re going to listen, and you’re going to pay attention, even when he’s telling it in that appalling Scottish accent of his.
The Paul Canoville Foundation would like to help raise awareness for ‘Dominican Relief’ and to continue helping disadvantaged/underachieved youth, as well as assisting other charities.
Paul Canoville’s award-winning book Black and Blue: How Racism, Drugs and Cancer Almost Destroyed Me is available from discerning booksellers, and Amazon.