Continuing our Making History Everyday campaign, Chelsea Football Club and Chelsea Foundation brought together Paul Elliott and Reece James to celebrate Black British leadership.

The campaign is our commitment to celebrating Black leaders, pioneers, trailblazers throughout all the year rather than just within one month. Black History Month is the conversation-starter and the launch pad, but the campaign is a round-the-clock commitment to those continuing to make history – that is why we called it Making History Everyday.

As the first Black captain of Chelsea’s men’s team, Paul became a pioneer for Black leaders everywhere. As current club captain, Reece James is channelling Paul’s legacy into his own leadership.

To bring this work into our community, Chelsea Foundation will be delivering education sessions that focus on this month’s theme of leadership, including positive communication skills, empowering team-mates and setting a good example.

Ahead of that work, we sat down with Paul to discuss the importance and impact of leadership within teams and communities, looking backwards as well as forwards at the challenges and successes that Black pioneers have had within the world of football and beyond…

So Paul, what would you say making history every day means to you?

Having been working in equality, diversity and inclusion for many years, I always believed Black History Month gives a focus. But also I like the celebration of the different histories, particularly in this sphere, all year round.

I’m a believer in amplifying the messaging and I do like the real focus on the month. With the various social media platforms it’s very easy to elevate it and put the subject matter out there. I like cohesion and continuity of that. But I’m a believer, with where we are now with this agenda, that history is being made every day.

That’s why I really welcome and am very supportive of Chelsea’s initiative because it normalises it.

It’s nice to have those conversations all of the time because society constantly evolves and moves very quickly, and we have to move with it. So I was really pleased with the initiative and the deliverability of that by Chelsea.

That was our intention behind it, and it’s good that it’s translating through the kind of messaging that we’re putting out. Thinking about all of the history-makers who have paved the way across society from the Black community, who has been your biggest inspiration?

If I reflect on my journey, my parents were from the Windrush generation, that first generation at the end of the Second World War that were invited to come from the Caribbean to help rebuild the country. That first generation were great pioneers.

Generations of my family were very skilled, my grandmother had a very good education, but unfortunately, they couldn’t get the opportunities for work in the Caribbean. My grandparents, my mother, they were my biggest role models because they shaped me. I had two very strong Black women that understood adversity.

They came here from the Caribbean, weren’t welcomed, and had challenges to deal with. That adversity really shaped me and they could give me those insights as my career evolved.

They told me you’re going have to work twice as hard just to get that equal opportunity. They were my emotional role models and that foundation really put me in good stead for my life, for my journey, for my career.

As I got older I had sporting idols like Muhammad Ali. I’ll let you into a secret, my middle name is Marcellus, which is the same as Muhammad Ali’s. He fought Sonny Liston when I was due to be born and my dad was at the hospital when that fight was taking place, hoping I was going to arrive that night.

He’s my dad’s idol so that activated my interest in Muhammad Ali – his whole career as well as how he dealt with so much adversity, racism, prejudice and inequality while standing up for himself and his values.

I kind of see that in my own life, during the game, but also transitioning post-football with the work that I do. I have a number of heroes but I’ll name my grandmother, my mother and Muhammad Ali, for different reasons.

There’s one other man – the nearest to Ali that I’ve met – Nelson Mandela. When Nelson Mandela comes into a dark room, the lights come on. I’ve never seen such a presence. They are inspirations for different reasons – Ali from the sporting, emotional context but from a political context, Nelson Mandela.

When did you meet him?

That was many years ago when I was in one of my roles with the FA, and we were lobbying to host the World Cup. There’s an ex-player that played for Chelsea called Mark Stein. I knew his brother, Brian, very well [they played together at Luton]. Their father was called Isaiah Stein and he was in Robben Island prison at the same time as Nelson Mandela, for about 18 years of the 27 years that Mandela was there. It all kind of joins up – when we talk about history, that is great history.

As Chelsea’s first Black captain, what does leadership and paving the way mean to you personally, but also on a grander scale?

To be honest, at that time, I didn’t think too much about it. I probably wasn’t even aware but that was a real start for activating change within Chelsea Football Club. Chelsea had their historical challenges around discrimination and racism, and that was the change in modernising the club, bringing it forward so it’s fit for purpose.

That meant a lot to me because I possessed leadership qualities that could add value to the team. It meant a greater responsibility, it empowered me, because I knew by virtue of me being captain, I had the respect of the team and that was very important.

Leadership to me means setting an example and that brings out other skill sets within you. Your leadership is really challenged when you’re not having a particularly good day at the office – you’re still the leader. You’re still expected to empower, mobilise and challenge the rest of the squad so it brings out those additional qualities as well.

I was honoured. It meant so much to me that I was nominated for that role and I knew it was totally on merit. I realised the impact it had on the community because when we talk about equality, diversity and inclusion, one of the challenges has been replicating the diversity on the field behind the scenes. The transition into coaching, football governance, administration – that’s the next phase of the journey.

I understood that because I had to make that transition. If you can’t see it, you cannot be it. I was a role model because people can look up and see people that look like them. That’s what empowers and mobilises and raises people’s aspirations.

How do you think leaders can have a positive impact on their teams and in their communities?

Leaders are terribly important because they set the benchmark, they set the standard, they humanise the situation. There is a greater level of expectation, a greater degree of responsibility, but it does empower and inspire people.

When I do my speaking I come from that basis – you’ve got to work hard, be dedicated, have strong character, deal with adversity, be positive. You’re going to have bad days but you’ve got to look at the glass half full and not half empty. You’ve got to be nice to people, whatever level you’re at in your journey, because we’re all part of the human race. That’s all part of being a leader.

Is there a moment during your time as captain that stands out to you – whether that’s from the place of being a leader, or just as a player, or just as a man?

There was a game I played in the FA Cup, against Sheffield United at home. We didn’t play particularly well and sometimes as the leader in adversity, that’s when you’ve got to go above and beyond.

We weren’t playing well and we got the right outcome in the end. I felt that I impacted the game as a leader, motivating others when they’re not doing particularly well and being understanding. That’s one of the high points because we really didn’t play well, we could have got beaten, but instead rose to the occasion in a way. I’ve met people over the years who remember a lot of my performances, but so many people remember that performance. They said I was a colossus, a giant. That’s exactly how I felt. That was one of the most rewarding times for me.

What would you say your greatest achievement has been, on or off the pitch?

Being Chelsea captain was obviously massive, bearing in mind the social climate at the time. Also going to Italy as their first Black player, that was a huge moment. That was validation of my mindset, that you can be here.

Then after my playing career, transitioning into the work I’ve done across English football – with the FA, chair of the FA Inclusion Advisory Board, my role at Charlton Athletic as an independent non-executive director, it’s an extension of my playing career that I never thought I would have done. And not just done, also impacted and made a change and contributed to the evolution of football.

As well as being a pioneer and someone who paved the way, you are a change-maker and a dedicated advocate for anti-discrimination and equality. Do you think there’s enough being done in football to celebrate our Black leaders across the board?

What we’ve done now, by virtue of the generations before, is normalise participation on the field of play. The diversity on the field of play is representative of society. The Premier League is in 195 countries, 4.8 billion people watch that annually, so that’s about 60 per cent of the world watching Premier League football, where 43 per cent of the players are people of colour. It’s normalised so does that need celebration? I think what needs celebration is the journey here.

That’s why Black history becomes important, to highlight what we take for granted. It’s taken challenges to influence and impact that. The trailblazers across the generations have all contributed to that. Now, the next challenge is the normalisation of accepting coaches and administrators, because this is highly disproportionate compared with those who play the game. That’s what I want to see moving forward for the next generation.

Do you have any closing remarks on this topic and the Making History Everyday campaign?

What fills me with a lot of joy is to see a club like Chelsea, a huge global brand, using its power, influence and global reach to really mobilise and engage young people at the roots of our communities. There is no power like the power of football to unite, break down barriers and teach people about respect, values and difference – humanising things.