I’m back at Wembley today, talking with former professional footballer Paul Elliott CBE.
Paul’s playing career began at Charlton Athletic in 1979, and he went on to represent Luton Town and Aston Villa before becoming the first black English footballer to play in Italy when he joined Pisa in 1985. On his return from Italy, he joined Celtic and finally Chelsea, where he became the club’s first black captain in 1991. He’s had a 30 year career tackling discrimination in football, holds a CBE for services in the field of inclusion and anti-discrimination and currently sits on The FA’s Inclusion Advisory Board.
In this interview, he openly discusses the racism he and his family experienced in the 80s and 90s and how he’s used adversity as a catalyst for success.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 1.8.19 – Ep 46. Paul Elliott CBE
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
TP: Welcome to a ‘Question of Performance’. I’m Tammy Parlour in this series I’ll be talking with leading figures from sport and business about what improves, limits and drives performance.
Join me for 20 minutes of discussion, twice a month, to hear a range of views and what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way.
I’m back at Wembley today to talk with former professional footballer Paul Elliott. Paul has a fascinating story and talks passionately about triumphing over adversity. He was the first black English footballer to play in Italy when he joined Pisa in 1985.
On his return from Italy, he joined Celtic and finally Chelsea, where he became the club’s first black captain in 1991.
He has had a 30 year career, tackling discrimination in football, holds a CBE for services in the field of inclusion and anti-discrimination and currently sits on the FA’s Inclusion Advisory Board.
Paul’s strength of character literally pours out of the interview, as he talks about using rejection as a catalyst for success and he openly discusses the racism he and his family experienced in the 80s and 90s. I particularly liked the advice his mum gave him. She said, “Paul, if you have the power and you have the influence, you do three things with it. You use it wisely, judiciously and constructively to make change.”
I asked him first what he thought was the point of football.
PE: Well, I think there’s a massive upside to football, it depends what context you look at it. First and foremost I look at it from participation. Football can do so many great things, it breaks down barriers, it brings people together, teaches people how to win, teaches people how to lose, teaches people about respect and values. When you look at the words corporate social responsibility and using the power of support, namely football to address social issues, in terms of fostering inclusion, equality and then thereafter I’ve not even come on nowhere near the elite game, what it can do and the joy and the pleasure it gives to billions. Remember, ultimately if you look at the Premier League for example, the Premier League is broadcasted in 198 countries; it has a global audience of circa probably five billion homes.
So that’s the wonderful impact of football and the emotional value, the competitive value, the sporting value, the human value, depending on what aspect of it really engages with you.
TP: People say that football is a microcosm of society. What do you think that tells us about society?
PE: First and foremost, is football a microcosm of society? I think it has a massive societal impact. When you look at England and the World Cup, we probably had what 60/70% of the audience share watching that. It’s our national sport. The game was born in 1863 at Great Queen Street, so I just think that historically we are a sporting nation. I mean look what’s gone on this summer. Alright you’ve got the Premier League, then you’ve got the League Cup, you’ve got the FA Cup, you’ve had the Nations League, you’ve had the Under 21s women’s world cup final. I mean that intensity. Then you align that with all the other sporting things that are going on as well.
So I just think sport, particularly football, plays a huge part. I’ve given the stats globally but also in our day-to-day lives it’s a huge part in our DNA. So, does it reflect society? Aspects of it do and aspects of it don’t.
TP: There’s that phrase that sport has the ability to change lives. Has it changed your life?
TP: How so?
PE: I’ve had a number of different challenges. I remember growing up and I was of that generation, second generation, understanding a lot of challenges that my family had first generation [unclear 00:04:24] from Jamaica, all the issues around racism and the challenges that they had coming into the United Kingdom and being accepted. I mean they were invited by the British Government after the Second World War to come and rebuild the country ‘cause obviously we were under the Commonwealth. My dad came here a labourer; my came here and she was a road sweeper; she worked in a school; she was a traffic warden. She went on then to get herself educated, became a state registered nurse and thereafter got herself a degree to become a social worker and then became a care worker.
So, I was of that generation where growing up at school, I weren’t particular encouraged to do anything else. Sport was great for me ‘cause it got me off the street. I was susceptible to some things where I could have gone off-side and there were certain interventions and sport was one of them and it gave me the opportunity to come away from negativity and be engaged and connected with positivity. At that juncture I didn’t really think I was ever gonna make it as an elite player and do all the things I’ve done in my career over the15/20 year period and the work thereafter that I’ve done in equality, diversity, inclusion, social responsibility and discrimination. It was something I just loved doing; it was effortless; it was fun and I think the more I participated, the more competitive I got and it was a catalyst for me to channel my negative energy and the negative influences into something exceedingly positive.
TP: Why did you make it as an elite player? You said you didn’t necessarily think you were going to. How did that come about?
PE: Well, I went for the system. I made it on the back of rejection because rejection can influence people in two different ways. Some people feed off rejection. I fed off rejection because it’s somebody saying to me you are not good enough, that can break people or inspire people to go the extra yard. I can see how it’s broken people and I have a sadness about that because maybe they haven’t had the capacity or the tools or the support mechanism. I really didn’t have that. It made me because I remember growing up from the ages of sort of 10 to about 15, going for trials at various clubs – Chelsea, Luton, West Ham – being told you’re not good enough – and Millwall, and the oddness is two of clubs paid a substantial amount of money for me further into my career.
TP: How did that feel?
PE: Well it felt great personally. Internally it was wonderful. Obviously the composition of the same staff then has all evolved and moved on. So when I do a lot of speaking to empower and mobilise people, I say don’t every give up, keep going, you get knocked down.
A funny thing, I was born in March 1964 and my hero was Muhammad Ali because I was born the same night that he defeated Sonny Liston and my dad was in a pub somewhere when he should’ve been somewhere else. Now, the irony is to that is that he was only 18/19 years of age and we won the fight against all the odds; Sonny Liston was a champion. I was born that night and remember him using this phrase thereafter: ‘It’s okay to be knocked down but we all get knocked down in life but don’t stay down.’ [Unclear 00:08:11]. Pick up and go again. So my middle name is Marcellus which is the same name as Muhammad Ali. So he’s been my hero and it’s just somebody that really inspired me.
So my rejection, to come back to your point, I think was a catalyst to my success and I don’t know how you measure success but it was people saying to me: ‘Paul, sorry, you’re not good enough’ and also I received a lot of sort of racism because our society in the 70s and 80s, Tammy, was a very challenging place, London was and what society represented. And when you talk about football representing in society, it did then ‘cause it was ugly.
TP: How did it manifest?
PE: Well it was the terraces, it was the British National… Well they were called then the National Front. They had such a strong visibility in stadiums and when you played in stadiums up north. So, obviously, you’ve got the historical issues around racism but for my family, they couldn’t get accommodation, no Blacks, no Irish, no dogs, you know. So that’s where you’ve got that real strong affinity with Scottish, Irish and West Indians, ‘cause we’ve all been on the end of discrimination, exclusion and marginalisation.
So, I used adversity to be the catalyst for success. I pushed myself to boundaries to show people I am good enough.
TP: Do you feel along the way you held true to yourself or you had to change yourself in order to make things happen?
PE: That’s a good question. I was still true to myself I believe but I’ve got this kind of button in me that says I looked at my mum and dad struggle and I think that was a struggle, that was a real struggle. How we lived at the time, one room, all of us cramped in and I’ve had two great women in my life, my grandmother and my mother that’ve been a colossal influence on me because of their strength of character in the face of extreme adversity. I saw they had to keep going. I saw the way my mum had to work so many hours just to provide the very basics to us, working all the hours that God sends. Taking abuse, being a woman of colour, being a traffic warden, because they weren’t particularly welcomed in this country and there was really big social challenges to be integrated into the societal culture and be accepted in that time. Then obviously that went into the late 70s and that’s when my career was starting as a sort of potential 14/15 year old. So obviously on the back of the societal challenges, it was clearly evident to me that that was in football, and it’s a way opponents talking to you in a very disrespectful negative way and honestly that filtered into the professional game, ‘cause it was then reflective of society.
Then you had the unconscious racism where, for example, there’s a certain position that I think I could be really effective in but they wouldn’t play you in that position, they’d play you out on the wing. A person of colour couldn’t be a leader, couldn’t be a centre half or a centre forward and have that responsibility; you wouldn’t get that. I didn’t realise that until later ‘cause obviously I didn’t have the emotional intelligence to understand that as a sort of 14/15/16 year old; but well I’m good enough, why I can’t I play there, why I can’t I have that opportunity to demonstrate how I could be the best I could be.
TP: You were captain at one point. How did that come about? Was there a change in…?
PE: I mean I was Chelsea’s first black team and club captain and that was significant at the time. That was in the 1990s when I joined Chelsea from Celtic. Given Chelsea’s historical behaviour from the 70s, so to appoint a man of colour was…
TP: So how did that come about?
PE: Well a lovely man called Ian Porterfield, he’s passed on now, he came to the club and I think that was the kind of catalyst to change because that’s when the Premier League was formed and then it became more of an international. So I think people look at other people’s colour and actually thinking well, this is was diversity looks like, this is what difference looks like.
That was the evolution of the Premier League then and I remember the main captain, he was injured or whatever, something happened and the manager said to me (they called me Jamaica at the time which was a nice nickname because of my parentage, I thought it was funny). They said: ‘Jamaica, you’re captain today’ and I said: ‘What.’ They said: ‘You’re captain’ and I said: ‘Oh, oh alright then.’ I said: ‘Why are you making me captain?’ They said: ‘Well you can lead, you hold the respect of the dressing room and everybody respects you’. So it wasn’t about an ethnic… He was just saying you’ve got the characteristics to be a leader, so you’re our leader. Then Glenn Hoddle came thereafter and then that was great but I think in my journey, Tammy, I captained England Under 18, Under 21 and England B, and I think they were big significant landmarks. I didn’t see at the time but given my journey and given the issue that we’re talking about and the sensitivity of it, they were big landmarks at the time and I think for me, as well, again I didn’t appreciate it.
In 1987 I went to Italy, I played for Pisa and then I went to Baru. I was the first black English defender to play in Italy, which in 1987 was a long time ago and a very challenging time. If you look at the historical challenges in Italy, as we’re talking in the current day, 30 years on, imagine what it was like then. Then I became the first black player to play at Celtic in Scotland.
So these are all things that I didn’t really think too much at the time but because I’m there to focus and play football, be the best I can be but obviously there’s a by-product of your success as a player, how you utilise that power and that strength and energy to make social change. I think that’s when I realised I started to become a change agent, when I could see the impact of me doing what I’ve done, it was having on society, on my community and on football.
TP: Have things changed?
PE: Yes. I think if I look at the journey generally across football, yes absolutely, but not withstanding that, we’ve got 21st century challenges. I remember one of the best things is I was one of the co-founders of ‘Kick It Out’, with a great man called Lord Herman Ouseley in 1993/94 when I packed in and with the PFA we co-founded ‘Kick it Out’ and if we looked at the challenges then that black players were facing, it was all about ethnicity then, all the other ‘isms’ have evolved obviously over the time. But that was just about black players and the reprehensible repugnant abuse that black papers were getting then, it was shocking, but in some kind of way, Tammy, I had football friends that broke and that’s my sadness and seeing them break and seeing them not fulfil my potential, that enabled me to optimise and maximise my performance because I didn’t wanna be like that and really, should I have had to? Not necessarily because when you speak to players or people of colour of different generations, there’s one thing we always wanted and we still want today, that we are getting more so than before, equality of opportunity. I just wanna be the same as everybody else and have the same. My mother and my grandmother always said to me: ‘You have to be twice as good just to be even.’ I’ve kind of grew up with that in my psyche and I use that as a kind of motivation, as a catalyst to drive my performance.
TP: Was she proud of you?
PE: Yeah, my mom’s now deceased, they’re both deceased. Yeah because she said to me: ‘Paul, if you have power and you have influence you do three things with it, you use it wisely, judiciously and constructively to make change.’ So that’s when I came out of football and got more involved in the other areas of my work.
TP: What was it like for your family when you’re in the public eye? So how did they cope with that?
PE: It could be challenging, you are susceptible, you are vulnerable, you can get tripped up quite easily; I think more with social media just taking things to another level that is incomprehensible and the intensity of it, but in a strange kind of way, whilst you get that intensity, it kind of blows over quite quickly ‘cause there’s something else happening, so literally in the next sentence.
For my family, it think they were very proud. They knew the challenges but I think they were just proud. I sacrificed my education to become a professional footballer. Thankfully I’ve caught up now, having just finished my master’s degree.
TP: Was it worth it?
PE: Absolutely, oh yeah. Listen, Tammy, to have played at the level that I’ve played at, to have represented my country, to have captained the clubs that I’ve played, to have impacted, I think the time was a very, very difficult time. I didn’t really see myself as a role model, if I’m honest but I’m just saying I was just born in this period of time, so I wanna be the best I can be in this period time to optimise each and every opportunity I get and I owed to my parents. My mom and dad divorced when I was very young, I was about eight years of age and I think, coming from a single family that was tough as I had a large family and I felt a responsibility to my family. So, again, that was another kind of motivational factor.
TP: You talk a lot about triumphing over adversity. What caused you the most anxiety playing the game? What did you struggle with most or was there no such thing, was it all about triumphing over it?
PE: I think when sometimes my family came to watch me and they were getting a lot of abuse in stadiums and to the end I didn’t want them to come and watch me. I remember a particular incident when I was in Italy, I mean it was horrific with the monkey chanting; the booing and they turned and tried to violently attack my family. That was shocking for me and when you look back I think I was meant to do what I had done, I’ve meant to go where I have gone and leave my impact and legacy in those areas in Scotland, in Italy, in the UK and I am meant to do all the things that I’m doing now insofar as the work I lead here at the FA and UEFA because when we talk about racism, it’s not a football problem, it’s a societal issue and until you resolve it in society you’re not gonna resolve it in football. You have to look broader but given football’s impact, football is not responsible for all the issues of society but what football has got a duty of care and a right to do, given the societal impact on football is to football in terms of the collective stakeholders ‘cause this is one area that should be inextricably joined up by all the stakeholders of this area. This is one area that we have to win together.
So I get that. I get the narrative. So everywhere I’ve gone, at times I’m thinking what am I doing here; you know, when you’re having a bad day and you’re getting [unclear 00:20:44] but then when something really positive happens, you understand why. I understand my calling, I understood my journey and I suppose that emotional intelligence did not develop until later, at the time you’re just playing in heat of the battle and I suppose all I wanted was all the things I campaign for now. I wanted that fundamental human right to work in a racist-free environment. The football pitch was my office; the circumference of the stadium where people could come and watch but there has to be a code of conduct; you have to behave yourself; there are regulations; there are codes of conduct.
I see now that we’ve seen the re-emergence of racism. You’ve only got to look at say when England has played or look what’s gone in the Premier League. So it actually begs the question, did it really go away or was it effectively managed? So it lends that observation and I’m really pleased and proud to be part of where I am in the FA because there’re some really good people here who are very committed, who are very focussed. The FA has had its challenges, of course it has. All the stakeholders have had their challenges but I think there’s a real focus because there is strong leadership in this organisation in our Chairman. We’ve got an outstanding CEO who is moving on to pastures new, Martin Glenn who is a really good man. What you’ve got in the FA now is a kind of coherent, cohesive strategy from touchline joined up to the boardroom and it’s never been like that. There’s been work going on in little silos but if you really wanna address these issues, it has to be joined up, there has to be a joined up methodology and thinking.
TP: What do you hope for for football?
PE: Tammy, football is doing a lot of brilliant work, what clubs are doing, what communities are doing and what players are doing. People talk about players earning millions, yes they earn millions, they are the entertainers. They are only here in proportionate to what’s in football but people don’t really wanna hear about players when they go to hospital visits or players when they go to prison visits. Raheem Sterling when we played a game here at Wembley, he paid for 500 tickets of his school locally within a two mile radius. People don’t wanna hear about; they only really wanna hear when somebody goes off-side.
So I think one of the challenges football has got is the amplification of the good work that it does ‘cause nobody is really interested. So they have to find other ways, other creative ways to amplify that ‘cause there is some brilliant work going on in football and I want football to keep doing what it’s doing but then go to the next level as a collective. This is not the FA, this is Premier League, this is the English Football League, this is the PFA, this is the LMA. This is one area that we have to have a complete alignment with because we look at the societal challenges now and they are affecting football, they affect how people think, how people behave. So what people have to know, the man out there on the street, they have to know if they come into your house and your home they have to show respect to the people who are in your house and your home. If they come into football stadiums, they have to show respect to those who are participating in the game and there is a way that they have to conduct themselves and I call it zero tolerance. There has to be zero tolerance but I’m believer in education. People can make mistakes ‘cause we’ve all got our biases, we’ve all said things in the heat of the moment but we can say okay, I made a mistake, put your hand up. Education, education, education, education and then you can be rehabilitated back.
So football is doing some brilliant stuff but I think now, collectively, we need to go to the next level. The FA are leading, they are setting the example and I feel very positive about that.
TP: Just turning the spotlight back on you for a moment. This podcast is about performance, people’s different views of success. What is success for Paul Elliott?
PE: Success of Paul Elliott isn’t winning trophies, isn’t winning leagues and isn’t winning cups. Success for me has been impacting those very challenged environments that I’ve played in, using my skill sets, characteristics as a player first, but recognising the other characteristics, how I leverage that to make positive, meaningful, demonstrable change to society and people. Because I’m saying to people, you look at me, my name is Paul Elliott, you look at me, what do you see? What do you see? You see a man of colour but there’s a person inside that man of colour. Don’t judge me by what you see externally, judge me by my characteristics, judge me by my behaviour and judge me by my respect for you.
So I think my success actually goes beyond what I’ve done on the field of play. I think it’s about impacting people’s minds and educating people by saying don’t judge, don’t judge. Judge me how I am with you. If I am decent, I’m kind, I’m respectful, I’m humble, I’m honourable, then that’s how you judge me. If I’m rude, if I’m impolite and if I’m arrogant, then judge me that we too, if there’s evidence of that within the composition of my character.
TP: How do you judge yourself?
PE: That’s a good question. I have challenges because I was sort of looking back and my goodness me. You know sometimes when you set exceedingly high standards and you fall off sometimes and you create a level of expectation and they’re people just there just to phum, you know, wipe you off and I’ve been there in a number of areas over the last 20 odd years. I judge myself by saying, like I say to my kids: ‘Dad you are wrong.’ ‘I’m sorry.’ So I can be forgiven. I can make a mistake and if I can say sorry to my kids, then I can say sorry to everybody and anybody. So I’ve learnt that simplistic human trait of it’s okay to make a mistake but put your hands up and say you’re sorry because ultimately, Tammy, people that know you, they will know what you stand for.
That’s the key. This world is littered with errors of judgement, whether you do A, B, C, D, E, your mom says don’t do that, you do the opposite, you do this, you do that. So I’ve got my head around that now and I’m glad I’ve got my head around it ‘cause it’s like kind of reverse psychology, it can play havoc with both your conscious mind and your subconscious mind and it’s played more havoc with my subconscious mind than my conscious mind. I hope that makes sense.
TP: I’m just gonna end up with some quick-fire questions.
PE: Oh year, go on, off you go.
TP: What did you eat for breakfast?
PE: I just had a cappuccino and a croissant. It was delicious.
TP: Favourite piece of kit?
PE: Kit is in what regard?
TP: However you want to define it.
PE: Favourite bit of kit. It’s my iPods ‘cause my daughter bought them for me and she said dad keep your phone away from you and use this and it’s absolutely fantastic.
TP: Sporting hero?
PE: Muhammad Ali.
TP: Yeah and I think you’ve already mentioned why.
TP: Most useless piece of advice you have been given or given to somebody else?
PE: Don’t do as I do, do as I say.
TP: Greatest passion outside of sport?
PE: I’m involved with some big projects in prisons where I go and I went to a prison and I saw a lot of my friends that I grew up with there and I gave a talk, a speech about life and life changes and it’s okay to make a mistake but we all deserve a second chance and it’s that social responsibility aspect of my work that gives me the greatest pleasure, more than what I’ve done in football.
TP: And the last question. Best performance enhancer?
PE: I’m trying to think about the context in which you mean that. Performance enhancer? I’ll tell you what, my mind.
TP: Tell me more?
PE: My mind because when I had a lot of injuries, some bad injuries. I had over 21 operations and at times, I remember when I had my very first injury, cruciate ligament, and then I was told I was never gonna play again, I’m gonna struggle, I was written off by everybody, I couldn’t straighten my leg, I had problems with my flexion, my interior cruciate was ruptured, my posterior cruciate was ruptured, my lateral and medial complex was ruptured and I remember the doctor was a surgeon whose name was David Dandy. He said to me, Paul I know your history. If there’s somebody that can get back from this and go on to greater things in football, it’s you. So that’s when I talk about the power and the strength of my mind and I believed him and that’s why I got back, ‘cause I’ve seen many others that’s had not as serious an injury but unfortunately didn’t have the…
PE: Crumbled, and that’s no reflection on them. No reflection on them. So I’d say my strength of mind.
TP: Thank you. It’s been lovely talking to you.
PE: My pleasure.
TP: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to a Question of Performance.com.
This guy is so humble. I am happy to here him speak. I was visiting London from the USA and he walked up to me and started a conversation with me. At the time I had no idea who he was my British relatives told me who he was at the time I thought he was such a nice person, hearing him speak now Makes me happy to have met him even if it was only for a brief moment.