…… Anfield, fighting for what you believe in, and commitment to change
We move onto the Premier League era and beyond in our exclusive interview…
In part one of our Black History Month exclusive with Paul Elliott CBE MBE, our former central defender discussed following in the footsteps of black players who preceded him, his own part in Chelsea history, being voted Player of the Year, and his current work in the field of equality, diversity and inclusion.
In part two today, the interview with the first black player to captain a Chelsea side discusses the injury that brought a premature end to his playing career, his attempt to win damages in court, the fruitful turn that his life then took, and his opinions on Raheem Sterling are shared too.
We begin back in 1992, the start of the Premier League era which followed a successful first campaign at Stamford Bridge for Paul…
Your second season at Chelsea, the first year of the Premier League, started with plenty of optimism here with some new strikers signed, but then 30 years ago last month at Anfield it happened – the collision that ended your playing career…
I’ll remember that day as long as I live. It is clear in my mind, and I remember actually going up there that Friday. The local newspaper in Liverpool had a picture of me against [Liverpool central defender] Mark Wright saying it was us competing against each other for an England place. So I knew this was a great stage, a great opportunity.
I thought it was a horrific challenge, that’s the truth of the matter. I remember having a lot of pain. I remember screaming and then going off to the hospital and my leg being put in plaster.
My whole knee had ruptured – posterior cruciate, lateral ligament, medial ligament. It was a mess and they were operated on at different times. David Dandy, one of the leading orthopaedic surgeons who’d repaired my left knee when I injured it in Italy, said to me, Paul, there’s a lot more damage, a lot more trauma. The injury in Italy was just a twist in the ground, it wasn’t a contact by somebody else’s boot, that’s the difference. When a person’s whole body weight landed on top of the knee there’s a lot of damage and he said to me the impact is like a bus hitting you at 30 miles-an-hour. There was a 14-inch abrasion of all the trauma, the fluid and blood inside my knee.
So I’m thinking my goodness. He said you’ve got a tall order here, but he said I know you’re mentally strong, you’ve gone through this before. When I’ve had a bad injury, I’ve got myself back, but this one…
- Read part one now – Chelsea history-maker still making a difference
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The next two years I worked exceedingly hard on the rehabilitation to get myself back but some time ago I saw Gary Lewin, who was the physio for England, and he said that even if I had that injury today, I wouldn’t get back to playing. You can repair a straight cruciate injury and be back in nine or 10 months, but mine was a lot more damage.
Gary said the surgery technique has come on unbelievably but if somebody had replicated my injury today they would not get back from that so that’s one comfort that I hold in my head mentally.
Chelsea fans never let Dean Saunders forget the challenge he made.
He gets it on the nose, doesn’t he! They’re not stupid supporters, they know if something is an accident or something is reckless. One of the best things that happened to me at that same time was my wife fell pregnant and it was a difficult birth. That made me realise I’ve lost a career but I haven’t lost my son. The umbilical cord wrapped around him and my wife had to have emergency surgery, so he was touch and go. My heart was broken not being able to play again, but losing my son would have been the biggest single loss of my life.
So life has taught me you have to take from the adversity and it gave me an equilibrium in my thinking. A lot of people can be resentful, bitter. I’m the kind that was able to see the glass-half-full side of life. It just made me say Paul, what do you want to do? Where do you want to go? How do you want to make a change? What about your legacy? That was the catalyst to get me into the work that I’ve done, which is so rewarding.
Whereas it took the fans quite a few seasons to get over thinking what would have happened if you had been in the side.
I can’t tell you how many places I’ve been, whether it’s on the tube, sitting at a restaurant or walking in the street where people have said that. Some of them got emotional in front of me, they’re feeling bad for me, so they are happy that I was able to deal with it. Of course I had bad days but importantly I’ve gone and had a successful second life giving back to the same game the same values that are very important to me and my family.
The club kept you involved during your long attempt to get back playing, making you club captain, you were writing a column in the club newspaper, and when you retired just before the 1994 FA Cup final, they included you as part of the squad for that occasion.
That’s why I’ve got a lot of love for [then manager] Glenn Hoddle – a great human being. He was so kind towards me. He respected not just me as a person but also the impact I had on the dressing room and he kept me involved. I was coaching for a short while and I remember being in the dressing room when he got the call from the FA offering him the England job. He was only 39 and he was saying I have to get my head around this.
It’s quite easy to say this person is injured, I’m only interested in those that are fit and well and can add value, but Glenn was much bigger than that.
Do you have anything to say about the court case when you unsuccessfully sought damages from Saunders?
I fought for what I believed in again, and a precedent was set a few years after my case by a player called Gordon Watson who won a case and he actually got back and played. Football wasn’t ready for it at the time but I have no regrets. I remember the referee got dropped from the Premier League the season after my incident. I’m not saying it says it all but that says something. I’m not bitter, I wasn’t angry, I was just fighting for what I thought was right because if I honestly believed that challenge was in accordance with the laws of Association Football, I wouldn’t have done it.
If that happened in today’s game… And the thing is I got a yellow card. It was another case of me being a first – a first court case like that in the world. It didn’t work out so move on.
Your nickname at Chelsea was Jamaica. Would you be comfortable with it if given that for the first time these days?
That followed me from Glasgow. I’m proud of my heritage. I’m proud of my parentage, and even now when I see Ken Monkou, Eddie Newton, Frank Sinclair – it’s all, ‘Jamaica, Jamaica’. I saw Tony Cascarino two weeks ago on a train and he said, ‘Jamaica, how are you mate?’ So it’s my pet name and it’s something I’m proud of.
It’s about the person that’s delivering it. The people that I engage with, I have affection for and they have affection for me. It’s not being used even remotely in a derogatory way. It’s a term of endearment, a term of love. I’m very comfortable with that.
Tell us more about your current work.
It’s a big part of my life and I’ve been very lucky over the last 30 years. I’ve been involved making change, working with change agencies, working with the government, working with or inside the Football Association. I’ve been on the FA Board, chair of the Inclusion Advisory Board that’s responsible for EDI across the organisation, and on UEFA’s social responsibility and anti-discrimination committees. So it’s making change, particularly hard lobbying, but also reforms to get greater diversity not just across the coaching side but across the whole organisation.
It is making people realise there are people from under-represented groups who are talented but just need that opportunity. I’m so proud of the Football Leadership Diversity code which I conceived in my mind and is looking to address the under-representation in coaching and across senior leadership and management. We looked at the whole process of recruitment, diverse boards, hiring targets for the clubs, and I have to say football’s been fantastic.
This was conceived during lockdown and I probably chaired about 1,500 meetings virtually and it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve done, just making that difference, bringing an awareness so clubs now have their own EDI plans. It’s about creating a meritocratic, transparent, open process because there’s a vast talent pool that doesn’t even get the opportunity.
It’s EDI across so many different facets in the workplace, in the dressing room, on the field of play, and actually impacting legislation, impacting the government, impacting football. So it’s been rewarding, feeling I’ve done okay, I’ve made a big difference, and am still driving change because it’s very important to me. I’m working with some really good people at the FA. They are utterly committed to change.
If asked one area from all your EDI work where you would like to see the biggest change first, what would it be?
Coaches – the transition for players to become coaches. When players finish, the data shows over 90 per cent want to become coaches, and I’m hopeful that the leadership code is a big foundation to create that visibility.
The FA are setting the example and the lead to football by the creation of the England Elite Coaching Programme. As early as 2014 l lobbied to get greater diversity among the coaches for the England development teams at Under-15s up to the senior squad led by Gareth Southgate. The concept was to have black, Asian and mixed heritage coaches in the coaching structure for each age group to mirror the diversity within the team, so the players could see people that look like them and have role models.
With my journey, I didn’t go on to become a coach although I’d done some coaching, because the opportunities just weren’t there. So I chose to go into football administration and governance. I got myself educated, earned a master’s degree, and it’s the best thing I’ve done because historically, I think football has been reticent to have football people in that area and I’ve challenged that chain of thought because of what I’ve done over several years in my roles.
The next phase is for people to understand you’re more than a footballer even if you don’t become a coach. There are so many options within the game, in team operations, in the legal sector, where those skill sets are applicable.
We have Raheem Sterling at Chelsea now. He’s done a lot of important work in this field.
He’s been brilliant. He represents that next generation and he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t say a lot but what he says is very impactful. It was kind of what he said that fuelled my thinking. He said ‘when I look up, I don’t see people that look like me’. He means looking up into the higher echelons of the game, he’s not saying so much the supporters, he’s saying those in senior positions. The football leadership code doesn’t address all the issues but it’s created that focus.
We’ve lost a couple of generations of potential coaches in the game. Hopefully we’re not going to lose any more and for this current and the next generation, the opportunities are there.
Are you a fan of Raheem the player?
After his career started at QPR he went to Liverpool, then he went to Man City and when he left Man City he came to Chelsea. Has there ever been a player who has played for the top three clubs in the Premier League at the time? That’s a measure of his talent, and the thing is it is only now he’s reaching his peak age. He’s been a phenomenal acquisition for the club.
To finish, do you have optimism the problem of abuse of players on social media can be solved?
My answer is yes. But it’s not a tomorrow fix. It’s on the government’s radar and we’re on it. The FA is on it. I’m working closely in that space, and the great thing is there’s appetite because the government is aware how important the legislative framework is. You’ve only got to look at what happened to those three black England players in the Euros to understand why it’s so important, or the recent abuse aimed at Brentford’s Ivan Toney.
The online safety bill is absolutely critical to prevent this kind of repulsive, repugnant, unacceptable behaviour towards black players. There much be zero tolerance. The racists cannot win. The social media companies must know they are not above law, regulation and sanctions. We’ve got to hold them to account and that legislation will. Not if but when.