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Chelsea's return to Paris clouded by last year's shameful Metro scene

Chelsea have arrived in Paris for the third consecutive year knowing that only Champions League glory can salvage the worst season of the Roman Abramovich era. The worst Premier League title defence in recent history is almost behind them, but their 1,400 visiting supporters head to the French capital with more than sporting success on the line.

The round-of-16 first-leg clash at Parc des Princes against PSG takes place almost a year to the day since French-Mauritian commuter Souleymane Sylla was repeatedly shoved off a crowded Metro carriage at Richelieu-Drouot station by a group of Chelsea supporters because of his skin colour.

A video of the incident recorded by a British expatriate on the platform quickly circulated on social media soon after the match, turning attention away from Chelsea's 1-1 draw and presenting to the world an ugly face that many around Stamford Bridge hoped had long ago been consigned to the darkest chapters of the club's history.

Paul Canoville knows that history all too well. Signed from Hillingdon Borough in December 1981, he became Chelsea's first-ever black player when he made his first-team debut against Crystal Palace four months later -- his every move at Selhurst Park assailed by a torrent of bigoted abuse from his own supporters.

Canoville spent four and a half years at Stamford Bridge, enduring horrific racist treatment from all quarters before leaving for Reading in the summer of 1986. Much of his time is now spent running The Paul Canoville Foundation, an educational charity aimed at transforming the lives of disadvantaged children with the aid of his own experiences on and off the field.

Canoville told ESPN FC that he heard about the Paris Metro video before he saw it. "I got a text saying, 'Canners, it still hasn't changed from when you played,'" he said. "I didn't understand it until I saw the news. I was very upset.

"I would have really liked to meet [Sylla], just to show him that this isn't part of Chelsea [anymore]. These are ignorant people that brought down the name of the club. As soon as people saw the video, the same words were on everybody's tongues: 'Yep, that's the same old Chelsea.'"

Chelsea have long endured a difficult relationship with racism. Hooligan firm the Chelsea Shed Boys -- later known as the Chelsea Headhunters -- and their ties to white supremacist groups brought the club's name low during the 1970 and '80s, when violence at football stadiums was rife, and continue to exist on the fringes of the club's supporters. Scarves bearing their name are still sold at stalls on Fulham Road on matchdays.

Racist abuse from those wearing blue inside stadiums is much rarer in recent years, but captain John Terry's racism row with Anton Ferdinand in October 2011 was an unwanted reminder of the club's unsavoury past.

The reality is that the chasm between the modern Chelsea and the minority of supporters who still act in this way has never been wider.

The club's response to the Paris Metro incident last year was swift and unequivocal. Five Chelsea supporters were immediately suspended and ultimately banned for life from Blues matches after receiving banning orders in the courts, and an open invitation was extended to Sylla to attend the return match at Stamford Bridge the next month.

An angry and traumatised Sylla declined. "I won't go," he told RTL Radio last year. "They can't buy me with a little piece of paper. I'm not a child. I don't want to sit in that stadium next to those people who pushed me."

He will, however, be at Parc des Princes on Tuesday at the invitation of PSG. "Paris Saint-Germain invited my client to be there and I think he will be there, with me," Sylla's lawyer, Jim Michel-Gabriel, told the Press Association. "He has decided to go to the match, as life must carry on."

"The second leg was a bit too soon for him to say, 'Well, how do I feel?'" Canoville said. "You've got to recognise that. It wasn't as if it was down the road -- it's going over to England, and the thought is in your mind of, 'Am I feeling comfortable?' He chose not to, and it's his right.

"PSG have invited him [to the match on Tuesday], but that doesn't share Chelsea's story, it doesn't show him what we're about."

Travelling Chelsea supporters, meanwhile, face tougher restrictions than ever before in Paris. The club's ticket allocation has been cut from 2,100 to 1,400, a response to November's terror attacks as well as the events of a year ago. L'Equipe reported that Paris police wanted to reduce the away allocation even further due to the behaviour of Chelsea fans -- an accusation that club sources have denied to ESPN FC.

Chelsea have also adopted a new ticketing system for European away fixtures this season. Supporters are now required to submit an online declaration form in advance of the match identifying themselves, specifying their transport arrangements and pledging not to pass their tickets on to third parties.

Club sources tell ESPN FC that this change in policy was the result of consulting with other top Premier League clubs that adopt a similar approach. There is no suggestion that it was a direct response to the Paris Metro incident, but Chelsea are certainly taking a far more active interest in precisely who is representing the club on foreign soil.

Paris police say that Chelsea supporters must collect their tickets from a pre-arranged location not close to either the Gare du Nord station or Parc des Princes, along with wristbands that must be worn to gain admission to the stadium.

The heightened security climate and legacy of last season's events mean that the level of scrutiny directed at travelling Chelsea supporters will far exceed what they encountered a year ago. Chair of the Chelsea Supporters' Trust Tim Rolls does not believe his fellow fans deserve to be defined by the Metro incident or a number of other reported disturbances in the city centre before last year's match.

"I travelled on the Metro the previous year [2014] and there were no problems at all," Rolls told ESPN FC. "It didn't do the reputation any good and Chelsea were obviously embarrassed about it, but I would stress that I've been all over Europe to dozens of away games, including flashpoint places like Galatasaray and Marseille, and Chelsea fans have caused no problems."

Chelsea are desperate for this year's trip to Paris to pass without incident and say that the invitation extended to Sylla to come to Stamford Bridge -- for the second leg on March 9 -- remains open. Canoville, however, believes his former club should do more.

Paul Canoville, the first black player in Chelsea history, wants the club to do more in extending an olive branch to victim of last year's Paris Metro racism incident.
Paul Canoville, the first black player in Chelsea history, wants the club to do more in extending an olive branch to victim of last year's Paris Metro racism incident.

"Chelsea are waiting on him, and that's not the way to go about it," he said. "Show him what we're about and make the invitation again, plain and simple.

"He would see a different side, the real side of Chelsea fans. You don't hear things like that at Stamford Bridge now because of the way the fans conduct themselves and because of the stewards and security. If anyone hears any racist abuse, that individual will be removed straight away.

"That's the situation now, and that's what it always needed to be. He wouldn't be coming to hear anything that would shock him. He'd be coming to watch a game in an atmosphere of what real supporters are about and what Chelsea's history is about. They need to show him that."

Canoville knows better than anyone that such a gesture cannot heal the lingering scars inflicted by racist abuse. But Sylla has indicated that he is ready to try and move on, and Chelsea hope their supporters in Paris this week show they can do the same.

"These games must be a big party in spite of all the rivalry that exists," interim manager Guus Hiddink told a news conference at Parc des Princes on Monday. "You see people going to games together wearing different colours and shirts. We have to create that environment. It's a pity about the security, but I hope and I think that the sport will be there where it's supposed to be in the end."

Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.


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