Cyrille Regis transcended racist bigotry and hate

Cyrille Regis, who died last week at the age of 59, was among the first black players to rise to prominence in England, writes Colm Greaves.

Cyrille Regis transcended racist bigotry and hate

1968: Birmingham

The Tory cabinet minister Enoch Powell makes the incendiary speech that helps legitimise racist bigotry in Britain for the next couple of decades.

“In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time,” fumed an anxious Enoch, “the black man will have the whip hand over the white man. As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. I seem to see the river... foaming with much blood.”

He shaped a societal fear that immigration from the colonies could soon result in a war between the races in Britain.

1977: West Bromwich

Johnny Giles’ first spell as West Brom manager is winding down.

In his brief time in charge he had guided the Baggies to promotion to the top tier of English football and on to a lofty seventh-place finish a year later.

But the lure of his hometown and the Shamrock Rovers project had proved irresistible and one of his last managerial acts was to sanction the purchase of a young black striker from the semi-professional London side, Hayes FC.

A statue of that very kid will be unveiled on the main street later this year.

1978: Old Trafford

West Brom hammer United 5-3 in a game their young manager Ron Atkinson said, with typical understatement, was one of the greatest ever played.

Johnny Giles’ last signing completes the scoring when he smashes the fifth goal hard into the roof of the net. That game is still remembered for different, darker reasons too.

Atkinson had selected the three young black players that night he had collectively nicknamed the “Three Degrees” — Laurie Cunningham, Brendan Batson and the young goal scorer, Cyrille Regis.

These were there first three black players ever to play in the same English club team and their growing influence was beginning to alarm some of Enoch Powell’s devotees among the opposing fans.

Bananas were routinely thrown onto the pitches as the chant “n****r, n*****r, lick my boots” mingled with monkey imitations and chimed down from the terraces.

The racism was so raw that night in Manchester that even the normally “hear no evil, see no evil” TV commentator, Gerald Sinstadt, completely lost his cool.

January 2018: Cyrille Regis dies of a suspected heart attack at the age of 59

He was no Mandela or Luther King — never pretended to be — but if there is one football career that illuminates the journey from the racism infected football terraces of the ’70s and ’80s to the contemporary tolerance, then Cyrille Regis is better than most.

Born in Guiana, Regis was the son of a fisherman turned gold prospector who abandoned his dreams of instant wealth to join the influx of Caribbean labourers needed to rebuild post-war Britain.

He crammed his young family into a cheap, one-roomed flat on the Portobello Road and went looking for work.

Cyrille later recalled the prejudices his parents encountered in those early days, the ‘No Blacks, No Irish’ signs.

“That’s when I came to understand why there were only black or Irish people living where we lived,” he wrote, “but I personally never experienced anything of the sort growing up, or at least nothing that affected me too much or stayed with me.”

It was a tough, penniless upbringing and included a year when Cyrille and his younger brother were hived off to a convent in rural Hampshire. What was apparent from the outset was that the young immigrant was an exceptionally talented athlete who combined an apprenticeship as an electrician with an increasingly progressive career in semi-pro football.

Hardened by years being kicked around Regent’s Parks by jealous defenders and with a hard-working ethic learned on London building sites, Regis soon began to attract the attention of the scouts.

His manager at Hayes, Bobby Ross, persuaded him to listen to West Brom and he signed on for a wage of £60 a week and a transfer fee of £10,000.

During the negotiations a dodgy light began to flicker in the boardroom and Ross wisely reminded the club that if Cyrille didn’t make it as a footballer at least he’d have somebody to fix the light bulb.

Thrown into his first practice match a week later he was marked by John Wile, still remembered today as one of the toughest centre-halves ever to lace a pair of boots.

Despite being whacked repeatedly by Wile during the practice the powerful teenager scored a hat-trick of headers that left his teammate and future England international, Derek Statham, speechless.

“We were all watching this, mouths agape,” said Statham. “After the game the lads were going to each other, what the hell was that. Who the fuck is this guy?”

This guy was Cyrille Regis. He played 34 games in his first season and by the time he retired 19 years later he had racked up more than 600 professional appearances and 150 goals, mostly for West Brom and Coventry, where he won an FA Cup medal in 1987.

He was picked for England five times, but despite this elevation, still couldn’t shake off the racism that hung over his career like a poisoned mist.

On his first call up to the national squad, he received a letter containing a bullet and a warning: “If you put your foot on our Wembley turf you’ll get one of those through your knees.”

By then, Regis had developed the unyielding courage that was to identify him as a hero to the next generation of young black footballers.

“The more abuse I received,” he wrote, “the more I channelled my anger into my performances.”

As his career matured, his off-field behaviour wavered and his life turned for a time into what he described as a “vortex of work hard, play hard, partying and girls.”

It took the death of his close friend Laurie Cunningham in a late-night Spanish car accident in 1989 to jerk him from his downward spiral. He renewed his Christianity and on retirement moved on to a career as a football agent and tireless charity activist.

At the time of his death the little Big Cyrille, the little immigrant, had amassed an extensive list of civil recognition, including an MBE, a fellowship at the University of Wolverhampton and much more importantly, 65% of respondents to a BBC poll voted for him as West Brom’s ‘all-time cult hero.’

A fellow crasher of football’s black ceiling, Garth Crooks, remembered him last week as “a footballer who transcended bigotry and hate and did it with a smile.

To his fellow black players, he reminds us of the battle that was won with a silent dignity”.

Although racism in British football is still not fully resolved, it was Cyrille Regis and a small number of courageous contemporaries that first stood tall against the bananas and monkey chants.

For this, he fully deserves that statue, an honour that somehow still eludes Enoch Powell.

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