Today the stars of the English Premier League are often black, many of them African. Yet 30 years ago, black players were a great rarity, subjected to vile abuse on and off the pitch. Cyrille Regis, who passed on recently, was one of a small band of black players who ran the gauntlet and emerged with dignity intact. In the process, he brought about a revolution that has seen the game embrace black players. Clayton Goodwin pays homage to a great sporting hero.
Cyrille Regis was no ordinary footballer. He was a trendsetter who changed the tone of the game, both on the pitch and on the terraces. It brought about an improvement for his generation and provided an inspiration for those that followed.
His recent passing from a heart-attack at the age of just 59 was marked by a minute’s silence at all English Premier League matches, with the teams wearing black armbands and a round of applause from the public. The world media, too, gave eulogies that would seem to be excessive for a player with so few international appearances. Footballers with many more caps to their credit have had just a couple of paragraphs to mark their departure.
By chance, while travelling home from a reporting assignment on the day the New African editor asked me to write this tribute, I became tangled up in the crowd of several thousand supporters leaving a West Ham home game. All, black and white, born in London or elsewhere, mingled together harmoniously – and so it had been on the field in the match itself. That they were able do so was in itself a testimony to Cyrille’s legacy.
Young people today find it difficult to envisage a situation, well within our own lifetime, when African footballers were a rare sight on English grounds. “Come and see the black player!” was an exotic selling-point, and black spectators attended matches with a courage which in other circumstances would merit a royal accolade.
Appropriately, it was a ‘royal’ – the word ‘Regis’ in Latin implies kingship – who provided the breakthrough in public perception which brought chances for his own race and shamed the detractors.
Now it is possible for Millwall, a South London club with a reputation for historic race intolerance, to mimic the classic novel by proclaiming, “Today we have pride, not prejudice”. To which a cynic added the words “we have pride in our prejudice”. The battle isn’t over quite yet!
The hurtful abuse which Cyrille and his fellow pioneers endured from the terraces – boos, bananas being thrown, monkey-noises being made and fists displayed – was of an entirely different order; and that was after they had overcome discrimination in selection to get into the side in the first place.
It didn’t stop off the pitch. There was the threatening ‘fan’ mail. In one letter, Regis received a bullet with the message: “If you put your foot on our Wembley turf [where many England international matches were played], you’ll get one of these through your knees.” He laughed about it afterwards, but kept the bullet as evidence.
The Three Degrees
Although his England international record at under-21 and ‘B’ team level was good, Cyrille made only five appearances in the full England shirt, from his debut against Northern Ireland in 1982 to a final outing against Turkey five years later.
His real impact, however, was at club level. With Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson he formed the inspirational, ground-breaking trio of black players which manager Ron Atkinson fielded for West Bromwich Albion in 1978.
Despite the persistent vocal abuse they received that day and afterwards, the barrier was breached and there was no stepping back. “The more abuse I received, the more I channelled my anger into my performances,” Regis wrote later. The trio were whimsically nick-named the Three Degrees after the popular singing group of the time.
The part of the West Midlands where West Bromwich is situated has been dubbed the ‘black country’ because of the amount of heavy industry and car-manufacturing plants there. The region is broadly associated with memories of some of the worst racism in British political history – Enoch Powell, Sir Oswald Mosley and Peter Griffiths, all the source of inflammatory soundbites, have been among its parliamentary representatives.
Yet from here, too, Regis, Cunningham and Batson led the fight for dignity, recognition and opportunity. At that time, their contemporary Viv Anderson was the first and only black player to play for England in a full senior international match.
The charismatic Cunningham transferred to Real Madrid and was killed in a car crash in Spain, aged 33 years. The loss severely affected his friend, Regis, and in its wake he became an evangelical Christian.
Regis was born on 9 February 1958 at Maripasoula in French Guiana. His father, Robert, was a labourer from St Lucia and his mother Mathilde a seamstress. His cousin is the celebrated athlete John Regis. The family moved to the UK in the early 1960s, where he grew up in Stonebridge Park in north-west London, and after leaving school, he trained as an electrician.
Cyrille’s path to a career in football led through Molesey amateur and Hayes semi-professional clubs. Coach Ronnie Allen recommended him to West Bromwich Albion (WBA) in the First Division (equivalent to the Premier League now), being so sure of his talent that he offered an initially sceptical management to fund his first payment himself.
On debut in August 1977 Cyrille scored twice in the club’s 4-0 win over Rotherham United. He stayed with WBA (for whom he scored 112 goals in 297 appearances overall) before being transferred to Coventry City in 1984. There he was in the team which won the 1987 FA Cup. After a further 238 league matches, in which he scored 47 goals, he moved on to Aston Villa in 1991/92. As he passed his physical peak, Regis played out his career with Wolverhampton Wanderers, Wycombe Wanderers and Chester City, finishing in 1994.
Regis and his colleagues won over the affection of the bulk of white, as well as black, spectators. The term ‘cultural crossover’ was heard as African heritage footballers brought to the English championship the same élan as West Indian cricketers did to the county championship.
Contemporaries remember Cyrille’s agility in confined spaces, his speed and the power of his shot – set off by an infectious smile. In approach he was noted more for anticipation and movement, rather than artistic impression, giving him the strength and control to break through opposing defences. His courage was as evident in meeting onfield tackles as it was in defying the raucous elements in the crowd.
After his playing days Cyrille Regis was honoured with testimonies and awards, crowned by receiving an MBE. He acquired an honorary fellowship at the University of Wolverhampton, and achieved cult status in the West Midlands and recognition for his charitable support of Water Aid.
His wife, Julia, led tributes to “a beautiful man and a wonderful husband, father, grandfather, brother and uncle” as well as to a “charming, thoughtful, humble, generous man, keen to make the world a better place”. A few years ago I was privileged to sit next to Cyrille Regis at the annual Victoria Mutual (Cricket) Awards dinner in Birmingham. I forget now what we talked about but can still recall clearly the impression he made of being a very fine man – as the details of his career, his character, and the testimonies indicate. NA