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Paul Canoville should not be here right now. At least, that is what doctors at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital thought.
Nor should he have been at the FA Cup Final earlier this month, or among 10,000 fans at Stamford Bridge three days later, albeit aided by a walking stick.
For when the 59-year-old felt a familiar, but excruciating, pain in his stomach on January 17, it set in motion a chain of events that left him fighting for his life over a two-month period that saw him undergo four operations and contract Covid-19 for a second time.
Now the former Chelsea winger, who was subjected to horrific racial abuse during his playing career, believes he has been given another chance to fight racism in the game and society at large.
“I’m just building my strength up,” says Canoville, sitting in his Fulham flat. “I know it will come and, when it comes, I am going to come out hard, trust me.”
First, let us go back to that evening in January when Canoville was recovering from a first bout of Covid.
“I came home to isolate and then I’m there resting and I felt this pain,” he says. “I started to take paracetamol, thinking I could sleep it off. But the pain wouldn’t go. So, by nine o’clock, I’d called the hospital and the ambulance.
“It was a bowel obstruction. I had this problem in 2017. I was in a coma for nine days. The doctor said it would be a one or two-hour operation. It ended up being nine hours.
“I was resting. I was in isolation, totally resting and I was woken up with that pain whilst in bed. I kind of knew what it was, but thought, ‘No, it can’t be that’. It was that bad I couldn’t move. I had to go downstairs to meet the ambulance because my buzzer for the entrance wasn’t working.”
That meant shuffling down 17 flights of stairs from his top-floor apartment. “literally step to step by my backside — I couldn’t stand up, it was that painful, and I did the same when I came out of hospital”.
At hospital, scans showed doctors needed to operate immediately — but that was only the start of his battle for his life.
“They took out the bowel, cleaned me up and sewed me up,” says Canoville. “Then I caught a fever.
“They took me back down to the operating table, opened me up to find I had two litres of blood in my stomach. [They] sucked that out, sewed me up and still didn’t know where the leak is coming from, so I’ve got another top surgeon to give me a keyhole [procedure]. He found the leak and blocked that up.
“Next thing you know, they find that I’ve got cysts, I’ve got blood clots. They want to open me up again, but they said, ‘We can’t open him up a third time — that’s too risky’. It was only by chance that whilst I was sleeping I coughed and the wound opened up — and that was the only reason they could operate again and take out the cysts.
“They couldn’t sew me back up because I was so swollen, so my wound was open for four days. All they could do was put bandages around me. Apparently, when I was sleeping, I started to vomit, so I was vomiting in my wound.
“From a bowel obstruction to three major operations. For six weeks I was under sedation and didn’t know what was going on. Information was relayed to my sister by phone because of Covid.
“Then [I remember] coming round and being in a hospital bed and doctors telling me, ‘We didn’t think you were going to come through it’. That’s how serious it was.”
Canoville, who has recovered from cancer on three occasions, is now on the mend, but it is a slow process.
“I had a Zimmer frame from the hospital,” he adds. “I’ve always seen them for elderly people. I was now using a Zimmer frame from right next to my bed just to go to the toilet. Can you imagine? That’s how it was. I went in there 16st and I’ve come out weighing 11st.
“The brain, the mouth, faculties are working, but it is the whole of the body. Energy-wise, it’s not there. Strength-wise, it’s not there. I’m still struggling down the stairs. I use a walking stick.
“I can’t stand too long. I’m not patient. Because I’ve been that fit lad all that time, you think I could do that, but I’ve just got to understand that I can’t. I hope I will be able to again, but at this moment it is taking its time.”
Canoville has been open about the racism he endured after becoming Chelsea’s first black player in 1981.
He has become a fierce campaigner and the Paul Canoville Foundation helps young people in the community with life skills.
He believes it is his calling to continue to fight for equality and ensure black players do not suffer the abuse he was forced to.
“To be here now, I’ve just taken it on myself to use the platform,” he says. “You know me, I double-down and keep campaigning against racism.
“I want to take this programme into schools right now and show these kids and make them aware of the effects of racism.
“I’ve got this opportunity and I can only say the man above has given me that.”