Racism – the serious side

The original geezer!

I wrote a piece last week on the case John Terry had to answer for against allegations of racism where 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.

Gimme yer programme lad!

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.

Paul in his Prime

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…


10 thoughts on “Racism – the serious side

  1. Bryn Waghorn

    With you there son… I remember that day well. Paul Canoville was a great little winger. I saw him play for “Chelsea legends” at Canvey FC ground 4 years ago and had a chat with him, Clive Walker, Colin Pates etc His legs have gone and he can’t run these days, but he does appreciate that “True Blues” still hold him in high regard.
    As per the burly guys… the one that ruffled your hair was John from Hackney. Up to that day he had been a good friend. We had been to games home and away together and I had no idea that he was a racist. After that incident… “well I never spoke to him again”
    To be honest, I lost a lot of good friends that day and had to go and stand in a different part of The Shed. e.g. the other side of the “Blue Fence” that was erected that season to separate the Xenophobic Blues from the True Blues.
    But such is life I’m afraid. There are good and bad in all cultures and societies. All we can do is try and educate our children to see beyond such small minded, blinkered bigotry.
    I like your article and I’m proud of you. You are a True Blue 😉
    Dad x
    ps… still in touch with Reg (he’s in his 90’s now)

    1. Bret Higgins

      Full credit your way Dad, you put all the hard work in to make sure I wasn’t like them in the first place. This is only the moment I realised racism existed and the fact it took eight years for it to affect me at all? Everyone should be so lucky.

      B x

      (Hi to Reg!)

  2. Bret, this is simply a remarkable bit of writing. Thanks for putting this remembrance out there for us to consider. It’s good to see how far we have come, even if it’s daunting thinking about how far we still have to go.

  3. Bravo, Bret. Well said. There is no place for this in our game, or any game for that matter. While I’m not that much of a fan of ‘traditional’ American sports, the World’s Game could take a page out of our book in that respect. That sort of behavior would never be tolerated at a Broncos or Rockies game. Not only would that person be banned for life by team officials but would probably take some serious abuse in the stands by fellow fans.

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