The Life and Times of ex-Chelsea Football Player Paul Canoville: Mental illness, addiction, cancer a
The Life and Times of ex-Chelsea Football Player Paul Canoville: Mental illness, addiction, cancer and finding help
In this exclusive InSPIre The Mind three-part series, I have spoken to Charlie Duffield about gambling addiction and Michael Watson about his mental and physical battles following his second fight with Chris Eubank. In the final part of the series, I sat down for an eye-opening chat with ex-Chelsea football club player Paul Canoville.
I grew up in a family that adored Chelsea Football Club. Despite being of a young age I remember my dad talking fondly of Paul regarding his football journey, and interviewing a hero of my dad’s was a humbling experience.
Paul has had an eventful life that has been nothing short of a rollercoaster and the strength he has shown during difficult times in his life is inspiring: whether it was racist abuse from his own teams’ supporters, recovering from COVID-19 or his battle with addiction to drugs. Despite the challenges in his life, he continues to give back to the community through the Paul Canoville foundation, a foundation that works with schools and youth organisations to promote confidence, well being, diversity and resilience through workshops and sporting activities.
Experiencing racism on the pitch
The rising football start, Paul Canoville’s life changed forever on 12 April 1982, in the Chelsea match against Crystal Palace: he was named a substitute for Chelsea Football Club for the first time. Paul described the excitement of being in the squad as “A feeling I will never forget.” Paul continued: “I was so excited to be in the squad. All the lads were giving me good luck messages.” Paul added: “Once I got the call to get warmed up, all the excitement left my body. All I could hear was racist abuse. I turned around, and to my shock, the Chelsea fans who were racially abusing me.”
Paul had waited his whole life for an opportunity like this; joining Chelsea from non-league Hillingdon Borough FC was a huge break for him. The excitement of realising a dream is something many of us never get to experience and for Paul, that moment was destroyed by the racist abuse he encountered at Selhurst Park (Crystal Palace’s home ground).
The racist abuse that Paul was a victim of took a massive toll on his mental health. “I was thinking of quitting,” he said when asked about the impact this incident had on his mental health.
A few years later, in 1987, Paul had to retire from professional football due to a persistent knee injury. He had to go through the heartbreak of retiring from professional football at only 24 and worry about providing for his eight children at the time. When I asked him about his mental health during that time, I could sense the pain he felt. “I missed training, having a day-to-day schedule.” He continued: “My mental health was taking a beating. I missed being a footballer. I told everyone I was fine, but I was far from fine.”
Addiction, recovery and Black and Blue
Paul has suffered from substance addiction at different points in his life, beginning in 1988 soon after retirement, and I wanted to find out more about that moment in his life. “Drugs took me away from thinking about the retirement. It was my escapism. I was hiding it from my family. I shut myself away and ignored everyone”. Addiction affects the addict, but it also affects their loved ones.
During this interview, Paul was adamant to speak about his experience of opening up and seeking help. “Rehab [rehabilitation] was therapeutic. It gave me the balance and schedule that I had lacked in my life at that point.” Paul continued: “I had to get to the bottom before I went to rehab. You have to decide for yourself you need help.” Paul added: “I finally got to that point where I accepted help.” Every story of addiction and recovery is different, and Paul’s story really impacted me.
After speaking of how therapeutic Paul found talking therapy, I wanted to find out how he found the whole process of writing his memoirs and if it helped him process past events. In 2008, Paul co-wrote with Rick Glanvill, the official historian of Chelsea FC, his memoirs: Black and Blue. Paul added: “Rick helped me so much during this process, and I am so grateful for the whole process. The reactions I got from the book were touching.” He continued, “I asked my mum if I could talk about my childhood, and she gave me her blessing.” Paul continued: “We spoke about Cherry Avenue [childhood home]. The whole process was so therapeutic.”
After battling addiction and spending time in rehab, Paul had another test in his life to overcome. After being in constant pain, in 1996, Paul went to the hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery and was subsequently diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. “I was in shock. I lost weight, and because of my background, I kept the diagnosis to myself. Once people saw my weight loss, there was a rumour that I had AIDS.” Paul continued: “The chemo destroyed my immune system. I was 36, and I felt old. After I had a shower one day, my hair fell out. When I caught the flu, I nearly died.” Hearing Paul explain the side effects of chemotherapy is devastating to hear, it highlighted the pain and anguish he felt during this time.
Another Ex-Chelsea player, David Rocastle, sadly passed away because of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, aged only 33. When speaking about this, Paul described it as: “One of the saddest moments.” He continued: “I felt triggered. It bought all the uncertainty back, and I was petrified I was going to die next.”
The COVID-19 pandemic
With the world going through a pandemic, I wanted to see how Paul has handled the last 18 months. “It has been difficult. I caught COVID twice. They noticed I had bowel issues while recovering from COVID”. Paul added: “They removed a large cyst. I just kept thinking how much more could I take; my body was being put through it again. But I am still here and fighting.”
Canoville Suite at Stamford Bridge
On 14 August 2021, Paul Canoville’s life went full circle. Chelsea Football Club invited Paul to Stamford Bridge as Chelsea played Crystal Palace. Paul was there to open a matchday and hospitality area and non-matchday events location called the Canoville Suite, 39 years after his Chelsea debut against Crystal Palace. When speaking to Paul about this, he was full of pride: “This is my legacy. Alongside the work I do with the Paul Canoville Foundation where we aim to improve diversity and build confidence in youngsters, I was full of pride.”
Paul has shown we can all lead a fulfilling life no matter what obstacles are in our way. Whether we have a difficult medical diagnosis, struggling with addiction or find life hard in any way, Paul Canoville is a shining example of what we can overcome and achieve.