Paul Canoville has paid tribute to his former Chelsea boss John Neal, who has died at the age of 82.
Neal, who managed the Blues between 1981 and 1985 and led them to the Division Two title in 1983/84, signed Canoville from non-League football in 1981.
The winger became Chelsea’s first black player and will be forever grateful for the support and help he received from Neal.
“He looked out for me and backed me at a time when it was not easy.”
Paul Canoville on John Neal
“He was a lovely, lovely guy and a great football man,” Canoville told West London Sport.
“He had been pretty ill for a couple of months and that was really upsetting, but getting the news yesterday has just left me gutted.”
Canoville said Neal was a man he had deep affection and respect for – particularly for the support he gave in helping the winger deal with the racism that was rife in society and football during that period.
“He gave me my chance and I was always grateful for that,” Canoville added.
“He looked out for me and backed me at a time when it was not easy. Considering how things were, that was amazing. He cared about you as a person.”
Neal and his assistant boss Ian McNeill inherited a struggling team and club in dire financial trouble in 1981.
But the duo took the Blues from the brink of relegation to the third tier in the 1983 to a sixth-place finish in the top flight just two years later.
“He turned us around and built such a good side, with Kerry Dixon, Pat Nevin, Eddie Niedzwiecki and others,” Canoville recalled.
“The players were united; he got good players and good people working with him.”
But Canoville’s strongest memory is of a good, humble man.
“I could not say one bad word about him and don’t know anyone else who could either,” Canoville added.
“He had everyone’s trust. He made brave football decisions but did things in the right way and treated people with respect.”