As a player, Cyrille 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
The sun was shining on the Baseball Ground, which didn’t seem to happen very often at a ground traditionally reduced by early winter weather to a bog of sand and mud. But on that Saturday afternoon at the end of the 1970s – the exact details, including the score, don’t matter – even the climate seemed to be welcoming the visitors, Ron Atkinson’s West Bromwich Albion.
Out they came, into the sunlight. Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson, Ally Brown, Len Cantello and the rest. They were wearing their change strip, to avoid a clash with Derby County’s white and black. Their shirts were broad vertical stripes of yellow and bright green. Their shorts were that same green, their socks yellow. They looked like Brazil. And that, sometimes, was how they played.
Regis was a player worth driving to another town to watch. So was Cunningham. You knew that, whatever the outcome, you’d be seeing something to remember.
The importance of Atkinson’s Three Degrees – a nickname fondly bestowed, lest subsequent events should persuade us otherwise – manifested itself on many levels. Yes, there was the sheer pleasure of witnessing them at work. But, as they braved the boos and the bananas, their significance as role models for succeeding generations of young black footballers had a value beyond price.
You could hear it on Monday as English football began to mourn Regis’s unexpected passing from a heart attack at the age of 59. 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”.
Regis was the third black player to represent England at senior level, after Viv Anderson and Cunningham. There would be only five caps for him, between 1982 and 1987, and on each occasion he was either substituted after starting the match (twice) or a substitute himself (three times). It felt absurd at the time, and seems even worse now. Even an admirer of Emile Heskey’s unselfishness and work ethic could not deny that his 62 caps versus Regis’s five represents a bizarre anomaly.
A cultural crossover played its part in the way some of us on the terraces viewed the rise of black players at a time when the expression of racial prejudice was still commonplace. If you were more or less the same age as Regis, there was a chance that you might have grown up loving the music of Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix. And if that was how you felt, it was easy to welcome the arrival of black footballers, in the belief that they might have something to add to the English game.
After all Pelé, at that point 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.
As a black centre-forward, Regis was a rarity at the top level of the English game. Clyde Best, West Ham’s burly Bermudan, had preceded him; his contemporaries included Justin Fashanu and Luther Blissett. Regis shared Best’s physical presence, but there was more to his game. With the power conferred by his well-muscled 6ft frame, his surprising agility in confined spaces, his speed off the mark and the power of his shot, he resembled a Jairzinho transferred to the central areas, or a foreshadowing of the mighty George Weah.
So many of his goals were the kind that tended to stick in the memory, sometimes for their significance as well as their quality. The winning header in the 3-2 victory over Manchester United in the 1977-78 FA Cup fourth‑round match on a mudheap at the Hawthorns would take a prize for anticipation and commitment rather than artistic impression. But his fifth against United in a 5-3 league win at Old Trafford later that year came with a majestic flourish, and a couple of years later, against Norwich City, there was a goal of the season when he chested down a high pass, turned and accelerated through a thicket of defenders and blasted the ball past Chris Woods from 30 yards.
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 man – 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 in order to ease the way for others. And on his memory that sun will forever shine.
The Guardian Sport