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Evening StandardPaul Elliott and Mihir Bose

Paul Elliott often thinks about how different his life might have been if his parents had never left their native Jamaica to settle in England after the Second World War.

Not that he has any regrets. “I could not live in any other country than this one,” he insists. “This is a fabulous country. If you want to come here and make something of your life, you have a chance, regardless of prejudice, inequality and discrimination. If you want it that badly enough, everything is achievable in this country.”

It is this belief that the 46-year-old will take with him as he spends the next six months trying to convince the 24 members of the FIFA executive that the 2018 World Cup should be in England.

David Beckham will lead our delegation – Elliott sits on the board – to Zurich on Friday with our 1,700-page document outlining the bid.

The competition, though, is fierce. FIFA president Sepp Blatter told me on these pages last week that while England’s bid was “strong”, Russia’s was “remarkable”.

There appears much for Elliott and his fellow delegates to do to convince Blatter that the World Cup should come for the first time since 1966 before the final decision is taken in December.

But Elliott does not find the prospect daunting. “Mr Blatter is complimentary about all the bids and he has been very complimentary about our bid,” he reveals. “I am not worried about his comments on Russia. We are concentrating on our bid. When I played I worried about my game, not the opposition and I am doing that now.”

Elliott is admired around the world as a pioneer who proved the bigots who said that blacks could not play the game at the highest level were wrong.

He was Chelsea’s first black captain and made 42 appearances for the club before his career ended at 28 when Dean Saunders crashed into him at Anfield. He suffered a serious knee injury and the incident is imprinted in his memory: “Liverpool, 1992 September 5th at 3:08. The doctor’s report said it was like colliding with a bus,” he recalls.

Elliott’s defining moment came earlier in his career in Italy. “It is what I call it the ‘Ancelotti moment’,” he tells me. It is August 1987. Elliott found himself almost accidentally playing for newly-promoted Pisa. He is in the dressing room about to play AC Milan in his first Serie A game. He speaks no Italian, nobody round him speaks much English. The manager is going through the names of the Milan team they will face, a team that will go on to win Serie A that season and the European Cup the following year.

As the manager identifies the Milan greats – Maldini, Baresi, Guillit, Van Basten, Rijkaard and Ancelotti – Elliott suddenly pipes up: “Who are they? I have never heard of them.”

A smile crosses Elliott’s face as he recounts this story, it would be inconceivable now for any English player to be so ignorant. “That is part of the transformation of football in this country,” he adds. “In those days English football was very insular. I was one of the first to go abroad. I was only 22 when I went to Italy and I knew nothing about world football.

“Today, England’s inclusion and diversity is a very potent part of our bid for 2018. We have got over 50 different nations, each of which has 10,000 or more people living here.

“So we can provide every player, supporter, coach, a home from home welcome. That message is wonderfully exemplified by what Lord Triesman stands for.”

But it was only six months ago that the bid was in such trouble that many felt it could only succeed if Triesman, the Football Association chairman, stepped aside. Instead, Triesman restructured his board and Elliott, who survived the cull, was left as one of the vice-presidents. “There were errors in the campaign,” admits Elliott. “But the great thing was Triesman’s attitude. He dealt with it straight away.”

Nevertheless, with England targeting Africa’s votes as crucial for victory, does Elliott ever worry that he is a token member in an otherwise white FA? “I don’t accept tokenism,” says Elliott firmly. “I never feel I am being used. Lord Triesman is a good man and a good friend.”

It was Triesman who approached Elliott to join the bid and, such is the bond between the two, that Elliott puts him on the same plane as David Pleat, his manager at Luton in the 1980s.

Pleat’s team, winning promotion to the old First Division in 1982, showcased black talent such as Elliott, Mitchell Thomas, Ricky Hill and Brian Stein. Pleat remains a hugely influential figure in Elliott’s life.

“Both Davids have a genuine empathy and understanding of diversity and inclusivity. David Pleat and I talk often and what I love about him is that he talks to me like I am still 18.”

Interestingly Pleat, who like Triesman is Jewish, did not talk to his players of his own racial experiences. “We’ve had conversations thereafter on the subject,” says Elliott. “But David’s message was go and show them on the field of play by the quality of your performance and the way you handle yourself.”

Not that this was easy. When Elliott started at Charlton in 1980 “there were all sorts of stereotypes,” he recalls. “We couldn’t play up North on a wet winter Tuesday evening. We liked to be around London and we just needed that nice little closeted environment when the sun was shining. We were all good athletes and all great social animals.

“It was felt that I could not be put in a position of responsibility on the field — as a centre half. I started my career as a right winger until Roy Passey, youth manager at Charlton, said, You can be a centre half’. I then had to pester Mike Dove, my mentor, into letting me play in central defence.

“When my career started in the 80s, racism in football was at its ugliest. It was worse up north when we played Newcastle and Leeds, because it wasn’t as diverse there, it wasn’t as inclusive. You never had prominent black people like Andy Cole plying their trade for Newcastle.”

Not that London was much better. “I recall playing against Chelsea when I was a 17. You had electric fences, you had strong National Front associations with Chelsea and the racism was clearly evident.”

But by the time Saunders ended Elliott’s career, he had been voted Chelsea player of the year and could draw comfort that, “attitudes had changed, life had changed”.

Yet even today it is the racism, not the memory of Saunders, that hurts.

“What happened with Saunders happened in the course of a football match, it was inherent in the game. The monkey chanting and the banana abuse affects you differently. When that happens people are saying, Hey you are not fit to be here.’ When people talk about you as a monkey, they are saying You don’t have the individual capacity and intellect to be with us on this field of play’.”

Much of what Elliott’s generation went through has been eradicated by the Kick It Out’ campaign of which Elliott is such a prominent part.

But he still worries about how modern footballers react to racist incidents. “You’ve only got to look back to 2005 when five or six black players in Spain experienced racist abuse. It had an adverse affect on them psychologically. They couldn’t cope with it. And I’m thinking, Hey, I would have settled for that compared to what myself and players like Ricky Hill and Brian Stein experienced’.” As a young man I approached life with confidence. When I’ve had the banana throwing, the monkey chanting, I didn’t like it but I used it as a catalyst, that’s the difference. Some people allow it to affect them.”

Yet this criticism of some black players does not extend to all modern players. Elliott is full of admiration that the present generation continues to lift the playing bar, making he says, this year’s Premier League, “the best year ever since its inception in 1992”.

And central to this, he feels, has been his old club Chelsea.

“Chelsea have been fantastic. They have shown all the characteristics it takes to win a Premiership: consistency, determination, drive and a collective resilience. Chelsea are very similar to AC Milan, a very mature team. The difference between Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea is that, while Mourinho played winning football, Chelsea now play more attractive football. Their ball retention is better than it has ever been. That’s because of two people, Ancellotti and Ray Wilkins. Both technically good footballers, so they have brought those same characteristics into the management.”

Not even defeat by Mourinho’s Inter in the Champions League dented Elliott’s belief that Chelsea would claim the Premier League crown. “They were,” he concedes “well beaten by Inter over two games. Then they went to Blackburn and drew and people thought they were out of it. That is when you show how adversity breeds character. I looked at Frank Lampard, John Terry, Petr Czech and Didier Drogba, the spine of the team, I saw natural leaders. That’s when I knew Chelsea were going to win the League.”

While Elliott would have given Chelsea’s player of the year award to Florent Malouda, he was present when Drogba got the award and saw a Drogba far removed from the less than flattering public perception of the Ivory Coast player. “What did Drogba do when accepting the award? He asked all the players to join him on stage and accept it with him, that was class. Yes, when he came here he went to ground too easily. But what he realises now is that I don’t have to go to ground.’ Other than Ledley King, who has had Drogba in his pocket, he could beat up most centre halves.”

But does Elliott not look at these modern players and feel a touch resentful? John Terry’s £170,000 a week wage is way beyond what players of Elliott’s generation earned. “Who cares? I got paid very well for something that I would do for nothing. I feel happy in my skin.”

* Paul Elliott is an ambassador for Kick It Out, football’s equality and inclusion campaign, and will be speaking at the One Game Gillingham event at the Priestfield Stadium this evening. For more details, visit www.kickitout.org

      

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