We welcomed Paul Canoville back to Stamford Bridge last Saturday. Our former left-winger did a book-signing in Borders in the morning, which was so well attended that the shop sold out of copies of his autobiography within an hour. He then spent some time on the cfcuk stall, where he was again well received, before he made a further appearance alongside Tore Andre Flo on the Stamford Bridge pitch at half-time.
Canners famously fought a lengthy battle to win over the Chelsea supporters, after becoming the first black player at a club that at that particular time possessed more hardcore racists amongst it’s following than most. What he endured in the early days of his Chelsea career was truly shocking.
Anybody who has read my book will know that I remain astonished to this day at the level of abuse he encountered as he made his debut at Crystal Palace in April 1982. Backed by both his manager and chairman, Canners kept his counsel and knuckled down, but despite being one of the club’s more exciting players for a while, despite scoring a crucial goal at Fulham and an equally important brace against Carlisle as the Blues stayed afloat in Division Two by the skin of their teeth, despite helping Chelsea to the top of Division Two early in the new season and completing a memorable hat-trick against Swansea in December 1983, despite being an integral part of John Neal’s magnificent 1983/84 crew, Canners was still picking up snippets of abuse from his own supporters fully two years after his debut.
Eventually, it was an outspoken blast from the much-loved Pat Nevin that helped Canners win the fight, as the young Scot chose a post-match press conference – ironically at Selhurst Park – to chastise the racists and implore the Chelsea fans to get behind their man. Pat’s words did the trick, and Canners flourished, his finest hour famously coming at Hillsborough ten months later.
What Canners had to endure will have left scars that will never fully heal, and the importance of his battle should never be underestimated. In this respect, the same goes for all the black players who became pioneers in the 1970s – the likes of Clyde Best, Viv Anderson, Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham. These guys took outrageous abuse from opposing supporters (which I guess is a little easier to tolerate than being abused by your own fans), and had to display dignity and immense strength of character in order to ply their trade on the pitches of the Football League.
It is therefore sickening to hear that one idiot from Old Trafford – and my guess is that this particular moron is not Patrice Evra, but rather some white, middle-class PR ‘guru’ – has decided to throw the ‘R’ word into the mix, in order to detract from the appalling behaviour of Manchester United’s players on the Stamford Bridge pitch after Saturday’s game. Evra’s involvement in the melee had nothing to do with racial abuse, but as the French defender happens to be black, Mr Moron – whoever he may be – has thrown a nasty little slur into the mix.
United, if they have any sense of decency, will sack the person who made this comment, because when ignorant fools make comments such as that, all they serve to do is undermine the true battle with racism that people like Best, Anderson, Regis and Cunningham had to fight. They undermine the battle that Paul Canoville had to fight.
I know an immediate family member of Sam Bethell, the Millwall-supporting member of the Chelsea ground staff who was attacked and forced to defend himself by Evra. Sam was suspended on Sunday and returned to work on Monday, pending an inquiry. It’ll come as no surprise to you to hear that his house was besieged by press men over the weekend. Certain newspapers today have tried to portray him as a yob, which I know for a fact is not the case. But, of course, those journalists are able to hide behind their laptops, spewing vitriol and openly compromising the security of a man who has done nothing more than defend himself from an assault by a millionaire, international footballer.
Check out the footage – it’s all pretty clear. So who are the real yobs – people who defend themselves from attack, people who throw their fists around because their team lost a football match, or people who release information in their newspapers that could have potentially lethal repercussions for an innocent man?
I can’t say too much about what actually happened, partly because I wasn’t privy to it, and equally because it could be unhelpful to Sam’s case. However, I can report that there are clear indications that the spark for the incident was the refusal of the United players to move to another part of the pitch, as the ground staff had been asked to make good the area of the turf the United players were warming down on. With a crucial match to be played just four days later, the ground staff had been instructed to start work on it immediately.
I have personal experience of the arrogance of Manchester United players. A few years ago, Chelsea’s first home game of the season was on a Friday night against United, and as I was looking for my seat behind the Shed End goal, a loose shot from Paul Scholes during the warm-up hit me full in the face. Red-faced on two counts – through both embarrassment and the effects of my unwitting clearance – I looked at Scholes, fully expecting an apology, only to see both him and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer doubled up with laughter. With that, I walked to the front of the stand and beckoned Scholes over, but he turned and walked away. ‘Both spineless and badly brought up’, I thought.
Quite why United’s behaviour was so appalling on Saturday, though, is anyone’s guess? OK, so they are feeling the pressure a little, but they’ve been in this position over the past couple of decades more times than any other club, so surely they should have learnt how to cope with it by now? Let’s face it, putting all our blue bias aside, Manchester United is a great club. They have a superb team, sublime individuals, a top manager and immense support. Of the other members of the top four, I would take United over Arsenal and Liverpool every day of the week. But on Saturday they were a disgrace, and one man in particular went way over the top.
Either my eyes are beginning to fail me, or I saw Rio Ferdinand make a concerted attempt to attack the referee towards the end of the game. According to the press, it was Mikel who the appalling Peckham boy was trying to accost, but from where I was sitting (East Stand Lower, Shed End – ie, directly in line with the incident) it certainly appeared to me and all those around me that he was trying to confront Alan Wiley, and was only prevented from doing so by John Terry and Michael Essien. But, hey, maybe I got it wrong. I’m sure the press wouldn’t lie. Either way, if this appalling yob and convicted drugs cheat is to be named permanent England captain by Fabio Capello, it is not only a sad indictment of the Italian’s sense of dignity and fair play, but also another example of how the chavs are starting to get on top. Bobby Moore must be spinning in his grave.
Oh, and by the way Sir Alex, we beat you fair and square. Get over it.
Kelvin Barker is the author of the excellent Celery! Representing Chelsea in the 1980s. Available now from his website or on the cfcuk stall outside Fulham Broadway station at every home game.