By Suresh Nair
HE was the pioneer for black footballers in England in the 1970s. He suffered an unending streak of rotten abuse from the terraces with animalistic chants and even peeled bananas and plastic bottles thrown at him.
Like the big man he was, Cyrille Regis endured the grotesque jeers on his chin and held his head high to blaze an extraordinary trail for the coloured footballers through his spellbinding goals and iron-will. It ultimately transformed attitudes on and off the field, in concert at West Bromwich Albion with Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson.
British broadcaster Adrian Chiles praised the role played by Regis in dealing with the worst of sports racism and likened him to (famed civil rights leader) Martin Luther King, who always turned the other cheek.
In a nutshell, as a power-footed player, Regis used his strength and control to burst through the defences. As a man, he endured unspeakable abuse in order to ease the way for others.
Regis is gone. A shock victim of heart attack on Sunday and the “Home of Football” was engulfed in grief but united in its admiration for the 59-year-old former England striker.
He was an exemplary character who let his boots do the talking, good enough to win five England caps between 1982 and 1987, having been one of the shining lights at West Brom from 1977-1984. He scored 112 goals in 297 games for Albion before moving on to Coventry, winning the FA Cup with the Sky Blues in 1987. He was appointed an MBE (Member of the British Empire) in 2008.
That’s exquisite class and charisma considering black footballers were literally run down like dirt in the 1970s and 80s with overwhelming racial abuse. And it’s ironic that with Regis’s death there was, however, an unprecedented universal celebration of his legacy within the game and the significance of his immense contribution.
Regis led a small band of coloured football stars who braved the boos and the bananas, their significance as role models for succeeding generations of young black footballers had a value beyond price.
(Former Manchester United striker) Andy Cole called him “my hero, my pioneer, the man behind the reason I wanted to play football”. Mark Bright described him as “an inspiration to myself and many players of my era – he blazed a trail for every black player who followed him”.
A statement from the Hawthorns (home ground of West Brom) read: “West Bromwich Albion is deeply saddened and shocked to confirm that one of our greatest players, Cyrille Regis, has passed away. Cyrille was the iconic figurehead of the club’s legendary ‘Three Degrees’ team of the late 1970s. He lit up the Hawthorns with his thrilling brand of forward play.”
PIONEER FOR BLACK FOOTBALLERS
More significantly, as an outstanding role-model, he also became one of the great symbols of the fight against racism in Britain as a pioneer for black footballers across the country and beyond.
Ironically, at the same time, Pelé, was being hailed as the greatest player in the history of the game, was black. So were Jairzinho and other great Brazilians. If there was a chance that the benefits from Commonwealth immigration could include the addition of a new dimension to the game as played by Nobby Stiles, Peter Storey and Norman Hunter, it seemed like something to be celebrated.
And yet, 40 years ago, few English managers trusted black players, whom they saw as athletes rather than footballers. They tended to set their reservations aside only for wingers such as Vince Hilaire, Mark Chamberlain, John Barnes, Mark Walters, Dave Bennett, Paul Canoville, Franz Carr and, of course, the sublime Cunningham.
It would be a while before the success of Paul McGrath, Remi Moses, Paul Davis and Chris Whyte began to convince many of them that black and mixed-race players had the bottle to defend and the brains to control the game.
His widow, Julia, said: “Cyrille and I were soulmates, he was the perfect man for me and we had a wonderful life together. He was a beautiful man and a wonderful husband, father, grandfather, brother and uncle. Losing him has turned my whole world upside down. It is a void that will never be filled.
“He came into football the hard way and never lost his passion for the game. He was a role model for so many because he always treated everyone he met with kindness and respect.”
Former Manchester United defender Viv Anderson, the first black player to play for England, offered his own tribute, saying: “Cyrille was a demon on the pitch but off it he was a kind and warm-hearted person. All three of them [the Albion trio] were pioneers. I still look up to them. They forged a way for everybody and were admired by all, not just West Brom fans.”
The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) chief executive, Gordon Taylor, says: “Cyrille was a true legend, a great pioneer for equality, a former PFA ‘Young Player of the Year’ and real gentleman who will be sadly missed by all who knew him.”
Regis was born in Maripasoula, French Guiana, to Robert, a fisherman turned gold miner originally from St Lucia, and his wife, Mathilde (nee Fadaire), a seamstress, whose family hailed from Guadelope. After his gold mining venture came to nought, Robert moved in 1962 to Britain to find work as a labourer. The family spent a year in St Lucia before joining him, when Cyrille was five, to settle in Stonebridge, north-west London.
He went to Cardinal Hinsley school (now Newman Catholic College) in Harlesden, where he showed talent at cricket, football and athletics. After school he worked as an electrician while playing as a semi-professional non-league footballer, first for Molesey in Surrey and then for Hayes in west London. He did not come through the youth ranks with a professional club and was instead spotted playing Sunday morning football.
West Brom signed him for £5,000 in May 1977 and he made a spectacular start, scoring twice in a League Cup tie against Rotherham in September of that year. Along with Cunningham and Batson, he helped “the Three Degrees” team finish third in Division One in 1979 and fourth two years later. After his spell at Coventry, he went on to play for Aston Villa, Wolves, Wycombe and Chester before hanging up his boots in 1996.
Ron Atkinson, who managed Albion from 1978-81, told the BBC: “He got five international caps but today he would get 60 or 70 at least. I think he was the best centre-forward I’ve ever had and I’ve had some top players. But I also think he was a better bloke than a player.
“In full flow there wasn’t a better sight in football. Visiting fans took to him. I can remember us playing at Leeds and we were all getting abuse, but he scored two wonder goals and afterwards he got a standing ovation from the Leeds crowd.”
BULLET IN THE POST
Like other black players from the era, Regis suffered extreme racist abuse on a daily basis. When international recognition became a possibility, Regis received a bullet in the post, accompanied by a threat to knee-cap him if he ever pulled on an England shirt.
“I kept the bullet as a reminder of the force of anger and evil some people had inside them back then,” says Regis in an interview with The Daily Mail. “For the rest of my playing days, it was also a motivation, a reminder that these people were not going to stop me.”
I watched Regis in the mid-1980s when he came to Bangkok, Thailand for a pre-season tour. Instantly, he captures your attention as strong, quick and direct. He had an excellent touch and a very rare ability to score spectacular goals, typically picking up the ball from just inside the opposition’s half, beating a couple of players with a dynamic, powerful run, and then shooting from outside the penalty area with unerring accuracy – as best evidenced by his “Goal of the Season” against Norwich in the FA Cup in 1982.
He was named PFA “Young Player of the Year” in 1978 and, having played for England Under 21s in the same year, was given his first international cap in 1982 against Northern Ireland, only the third black player to play for England after Viv Anderson and Cunningham.
Although he will be best remembered for his time at West Brom, Regis had an equally long spell at Coventry, where he played 274 games over seven seasons after transferring for £250,000 as a 26-year-old. In the early days at Highfield Road, he found himself in a side struggling to avoid relegation from the First Division, but things began to turn around under the management of John Sillett, and Regis played a key role in Coventry’s underdog run to the 1987 FA Cup final, which they won 3-2 in extra time against Tottenham.
LAST ENGLAND CAP
Regis’s last England cap came while he was at Coventry, against Turkey in 1987. By that time his strike rate was beginning to diminish, and after Sillett was replaced as Coventry’s manager by Terry Butcher in 1990, he was shipped on to Aston Villa, where he was reunited with Atkinson.
By now in his early 30s, he made 39 appearances in his first campaign there. He played more of a bit-part role as Villa were runners-up in the first season of the Premier League era in 1992-93, after which he dropped down a tier to join another Midlands club, Wolverhampton Wanderers, before finishing quietly with a season each at Wycombe in the Second Division and then Chester City in the Third.
He had his last match in 1996, aged 38, across a 19-year career, in which he was a popular, resilient figure wherever he played. He made 701 appearances for his various clubs, scoring 205 goals.
After Chester, Regis returned to West Brom as a reserve team coach before setting up as a football agent over the next two decades from his base in Birmingham, where he had continued to live since signing for West Brom. He had become a born-again Christian after being deeply affected by the death of Cunningham in a car crash in 1989, and was a trustee of the Christians in Sport organisation as well as an ambassador for WaterAid.
British broadcaster Adrian Chiles praised the role played by Regis in dealing with racism in the English game in the 1970s and 1980s. He says: “In later years, I was privileged to get to know him as a friend and he just didn’t carry anger with him from that time. Ian Wright, a later generation of black players, said: ‘We were like Malcolm X… but Cyrille was like Martin Luther King — always turning the other cheek. They did so much for the game and so much for the cause of black footballers.”
Very big. Very strong. Very friendly: That’s how he’ll be remembered as a player, using his strength and control to burst through the last line of defence, eating up the ground before hammering the ball home.
As a gentleman – charming, thoughtful, humble, generous with his time, keen to make the world a better place – he had emerged from a raw background in the Notting Hill and Stonebridge Park of the 1960s, and from the rough and tumble of non-league football, to become one of the courageous leaders of a generation who endured unspeakable abuse of boos and bananas in order to ease the way for others.
And on his memory, trust me as I say this, that sun will forever shine.
RIP Cyrille Regis, MBE. Born February 9 1958. Died January 14 2018