THE PAUL ELLIOTT AFFAIR
In the days when Chelsea’s policy makers were significantly more circumspect in their transfer dealings, the signing of Celtic’s Paul Elliott for £1.4 million in the summer of 1991 was a clear statement that the club meant business. Certainly his capture was enough to excite the fans, as it was rare at the time for the Blues to sign top-quality players in their prime to join the club’s annual campaign of mid-table mediocrity. But where Elliott was concerned, it was money well spent. He was the current Scottish League Player of the Year, and had also performed at the top level in Italy with Pisa, and in England with Luton Town and Aston Villa.
Paul quickly settled into his SW6 surroundings, and his new team-mates gave him the nickname Jamaica, despite his Trinidadian roots. OK, that’s just my little joke, but footballers’ nicknames tend to bring out the worst in me. With very few exceptions – One Size Fitz Hall being the most notable – these pseudonyms tend to be pathetic, regularly consisting simply of a Y being added to the end of surname. Of course, it is a system that has served Chelsea well down the years, and we have been able to enjoy some sterling performances from Webby, Patesy, Clarkey and Wisey. Despite the sound of their names, Niedzwiecki, Vialli, Casiraghi and Bonetti do not count, although in the case of the latter, his team-mates, in recognition of Bonetti’s feline-like prowess between the sticks, did refer to him as Catty! It’s also a little-known fact that the current Chelsea and England captain was actually christened John Terr. The Y was only added after he signed professional forms. But I digress. Given a choice between Jamaica and Elliotty, the players chose well.
Jamaica scored on his Chelsea debut – against Wimbledon at Stamford Bridge – and again in his next home match, against Notts County. Strangely, both games finished 2-2, with another newcomer, Geordie face-ache Joe Allon, scoring late equalisers on both occasions. Soon after, Sheffield United’s uber-yob, Vinnie Jones, joined the club, and at his first press-conference the former Wimbledon man moronically listed for the media, which of his new colleagues he felt would be useful if there was a ruck in the tunnel! He named Elliott as one of those players, implying that they shared the same proud ethics when it came to camaraderie and team-spirit, conveniently forgetting that Elliott, unlike Jones, was a man of class. Sadly, when Jones had the opportunity to back this up a couple of years later, he was found wanting.
Throughout his first season at the Bridge, Elliott hardly put a foot wrong (perhaps a little too much Soul Glo in his curly mane, but that shouldn’t be held against him), and even got a long-overdue call-up to the England squad. At the end of the campaign he was the deserved recipient of the official Chelsea Player-of-the-Year trophy. Everything is the garden looked rosy, but within weeks of the start of the 1992/93 season, his career was in tatters.
When Paul Elliott flung himself into a challenge from behind on Liverpool’s Dean Saunders at Anfield in September 1992, he was almost certainly going to commit a foul. Not a particularly spiteful foul, not a career-threatening foul, but a foul all the same. Most strikers, when placed in Saunders’ position, would simply get between the ball and the defender and brace themselves for the contact, but Saunders – who had previous when it came to spiteful antics, having inflicted serious damage on a Bristol Rovers defender with a spiteful elbow to his jaw during a recent cup clash – viciously sent his studs careering into Elliott’s right knee, causing severe ligament damage. The defender battled for eighteen months to make a return to fitness but it wasn’t to be, and in May 1994 he announced his retirement from the game.
Elliott sued Saunders, alleging recklessness. In the aftermath of the incident, his team-mates, Andy Townsend and Vinnie Jones, had been typically full of enraged bluster, vowing to give their pal Jamaica their full support; yet when Saunders – now playing for Aston Villa – scored the first goal of the following campaign at Villa Park, the first person on the scene to give him a kiss and a cuddle in front of the Holte End was his new team-mate: Andy Townsend. Elliott’s heart must have sunk. Later that season, during a minute’s silence before the start of the Chelsea v Aston Villa game at Stamford Bridge, Townsend was loudly called a w***** by a Chelsea supporter. Paul Elliott wasn’t the supporter in question, but it would have been understandable if he had been.
Jones, the man who had stupidly named Elliott as a potential ally if ever he needed a bit of support in the tunnel, did at least make a statement in support of his former team-mate, and was a crucial witness for Paul’s legal team, but on the day that he was due in court, he failed to show and had to be subpoenaed to appear. Typically, he arrived in a blaze of publicity, wearing scruffy jeans and a casual shirt. Questioned in court, he changed his statement, leaving Paul in the lurch. Incredibly, the judge – perhaps a little star-struck by the appearance of such a media figure in his courtroom – was full of praise for Jones’ little cameo in the dock.
Despite support from the likes of Ken Bates, Dennis Wise, Don Howe, John Hollins and, tellingly, Saunders’ Liverpool team-mate Ronnie Whelan, Elliott lost his case. Crucially, the referee on that fateful day at Anfield, John Key, was firmly in Saunders’ corner. He supported the Welshman’s case, and certainly enjoyed his moment in the spotlight, announcing to the courtroom that he never made mistakes. His perfection notwithstanding, Key had been disqualified from the FA’s lists after the game at Anfield, but his testimony in support of Saunders, and his reluctance to admit his mistakes, certainly counted against Elliott.
Paul Elliott was awarded a testimonial against Bobby Robson’s Porto in the summer of 1995, by which time he was already embarking on a career in the media. In 2003 he was awarded an MBE for his work with young footballers and the Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football Campaign.
For his part, the unrepentant Saunders continued to play his football in the same vein: scoring goals and hurting opponents. On 17 May 1997 – while Chelsea were beating Middlesbrough in the FA Cup Final – Saunders represented an international XI in a testimonial match for his old friend and team-mate Paul McGrath. The match against McGrath’s Ireland team was petering out to a diplomatic draw when Saunders silenced the Lansdowne Road crowd by scoring for his team, before injuring McGrath, by this stage a 37-year-old alcoholic with famously bad knees, with a crunching tackle. Questioned about his challenge by the physio after the game, Saunders responded: “if he ain’t fit, he shouldn’t be playing.”
It should come as a surprise to nobody that Saunders is so popular with Graeme Souness!