Monday brought the tragic news that Cyrille Regis had passed away at the age of 59. Tributes rightly flowed forth from all corners of the football world, from his contemporaries to the myriad of players he had coached, mentored, or even just inspired. A universal sadness among supporters spread across social media, while pundits and journalists were quick to recount just how important Regis was in the story of English football. His is a story of triumph through adversity, courage over anger, and integrity in the face of ignorance. Here we offer something of a eulogy to a man that became one of the forerunners for black footballers in England’s top flight and who, above all else, was a sensational goalscorer.
“Oh and what a great shot – OH! And one of the goals of the season! Cyrille Regis!”
My formative football years were in the mid-90s, so I’m very much a child of Rupert Murdoch, which is a hideous thought. Euro ’96 was the first defining moment in my relationship with the game – even viewing it all with fresh eyes and almost entirely stripped of context, I could sense the importance of England’s 4-1 demolition of the Netherlands, and endured my first football heartbreak when Andreas Moller converted his penalty in the semi-final. Suddenly I was hooked. It may surprise younger readers but there was once a time where YouTube wasn’t readily available, nay didn’t even exist. We didn’t even get a PC in our house until 1997, and 56k dial-up internet arrived a year later, but was only allowed to be used for half an hour every night provided no-one else wanted to use the phone. So I’d have to find some other way to gorge on football before the age of information reached the East of England. Fortunately, my older brother had been just as voracious in the 1980s. A Liverpool fan at the time (post-Dalglish he switched to Sheffield Wednesday, then as an undergraduate Nottingham Forest were his team – what’s the opposite of a glory supporter?), he had amassed a sizable collection of videos – mainly charting the dominance of his team throughout the decade. It didn’t take me long to become well-acquainted with them. Suddenly I was not only discovering a ruthless, free-scoring juggernaut, with the quick-feet of Peter Beardsley, the shimmying of John Barnes, the precision of Ian Rush and John Aldridge and the eccentricity of Bruce Grobbelaar, but also some of the most monumental moments in the history of the game. Wimbledon’s shock win in the FA Cup final, the incomprehensible tragedy of Hillsborough, Michael Thomas’ dramatic league winning goal for Arsenal. Having brushed up on my knowledge of Liverpool, I began to scour the house for more videos. I found a stash of unlabeled VHS tapes in my brother’s room and, in my innocence, began to work through them. In hindsight I was fortunate not to come across any jazz material, though the taped episodes of The Word seemed to my child-self like the kind of thing I shouldn’t be watching. Eventually I happened upon Goal! The technicolour story of the 1966 World Cup, as well as a talking heads retrospective on the Italia ’90 semi-final. Three months previous I couldn’t have told you when England had last won a match, and before I knew it they’d won a World Cup and suffered two heartbreaking penalty shootout defeats to Germany. Then, one day when searching through the cupboard under the stairs I discovered a videotape I hadn’t seen before.
101 Great Goals was a VHS with a self-explanatory concept and while it included some goals from the 80s, a decade that I considered myself pretty well across by now, there were also clips from the 70s and 60s – years that seemed like some far distant land. I watched it, and I loved it, so I watched it again, and again and again. Soon I’d decided, via a protracted list-writing and re-writing process, on my favourites of those 101 Great Goals, and whenever I put the tape back in – I’d watch it at the very least once a week – I’d sit next to the video player with my fingers on fast-forward and play so I could skip to the best goals and watch them over and over. In among them were George Best’s nonchalant lob over Pat Jennings for Manchester United against Tottenham Hotspur, Ricky Villa waltzing through the Manchester City defence in the cup final, Johnny Metgod’s hammer of a free-kick for Nottingham Forest against West Ham, and the ingenious ‘donkey-kick’ from Willie Carr that set up Ernie Hunt for Coventry against Everton. There was one goal, however, that has stayed with me to this day. It was by far and away my favourite. It came in a game between West Bromwich Albion and Norwich City in the 1981/82 season and it was scored by Cyrille Regis.
Regis had signed for the Baggies in 1977 from non-league Hayes, having caught the attention of West Brom’s chief scout Ronnie Allen after a prolific season at Church Road. A fee of £5,000 was paid to secure the striker’s services, and he quickly established himself as a reliable ten-goals-a-season striker in a team that yo-yo’d between the top and bottom half of the First Division. Finishing as top scorer in three of his eight seasons at the Hawthorns, Regis’ departure to Coventry City coincided with a dip in form for West Brom, and a season later they were relegated. Though he never quite hit the same heights in a sky blue shirt as he had in navy and white stripes, Regis still played a massive part in some of Coventry’s greatest moments in recent memory – scoring the only goal in the clubs first ever win away at Liverpool, and also leading the line in their shock FA Cup win against Tottenham. After seven seasons at Highfield Road, he made the short trip over to Aston Villa to join former manager Ron Atkinson on a free transfer. Despite being 33, he finished his first season at Villa Park as joint top goalscorer with the young Dwight Yorke, helping Villa to a 7th place finish. With age against him, Regis became a bit part player in his second season with Dean Saunders and Dalian Atkinson preferred in attack, though he still managed 13 league appearances to help secure a runners-up spot behind Manchester United. A brief spell at Wolverhampton Wanderers (he really did love the West Midlands) and an Indian Summer with Wycombe Wanderers followed before he hung up his boots after a season with Chester City. Immediately returning to West Brom as a reserve team coach, Regis later spent two decades working as a football agent.
But an overview of his career barely begins to scratch the surface as to why Cyrille Regis was such a trailblazer in English football. Arthur Wharton and Walter Tull are widely recognised as two of the first black footballers to play professionally in England, but it wasn’t until the 60s and 70s, after widespread migration from the West Indies, that black players became more than an exception in the top flight. In the same year that Regis was signed by West Brom, Laurie Cunningham joined the club from Leyton Orient. The arrival a year later of Brendon Batson from Cambridge United gave the West Brom first team a curious look – it was excessively rare to see more than one black player fielded in the same team in the First Division, let alone three. The three were quickly dubbed ‘The Three Degrees’, gauche by today’s standards, but at the time assigned affectionately. They were the heartbeat of the West Brom team – Batson solid in defence, Cunnigham lightning quick down the wing, and Regis deadly from 35 yards. They, along with manager Ron Atkinson, transformed the Baggies into one of the most exciting sides in the league, but at the time there were still large swathes of football supporters that weren’t entirely on board with West Brom’s diversification. In the 1970 and 80s, football hooliganism was at its peak. Alongside scrapping with police and opposition supporters, “fans” would also direct abhorrent invective to the players on the pitch – most often towards players of colour. One of the first times I really became aware of racism from the terraces was when I came across the iconic image of John Barnes backheeling a banana off the pitch that had been thrown at him. The abuse – often verbal, in the form of monkey chants or foul, race-based language, but also occasionally physical – was relentless, and followed black footballers around the country. The FA and the British media turned a blind eye to the issue, and white team-mates of black players often recall how their attitude was essentially ‘this isn’t our battle to fight’. In the book The Three Degrees by Paul Rees, Batson recalls how all-consuming the abuse was. “We’d get off the coach at away matches and the National Front would be right there in your face. In those days, we didn’t have security and we’d have to run the gauntlet. We’d get to the players’ entrance and there’d be spit on my jacket or Cyrille’s shirt. It was a sign of the times. I don’t recall making a big hue and cry about it. We coped. It wasn’t a new phenomenon to us.”
With no quarter offering to aid the players cause – Batson once confronted the BBC, who claimed the crowds were “too loud” for them to hear abuse – they had two choices, to stay and face the hate, or pack their bags. West Brom’s trio did the former, and how. Regis and Cunningham in particular used the abuse as a driving force that inspired them to victory. In Dave Roberts’ fantastic 32 Programmes he recalls attending a match at Old Trafford in the 70s between Manchester United and West Bromwich Albion and noticing, for the first time, that whenever one of the Baggies’ black contingent touched the ball the home supporters booed. Regis and Cunningham claimed a goal and an assist each and West Brom ran out 5-3 winners in a scintillating exhibition of attacking football. Slowly but surely, the sheer talent of Regis and his teammates began to slice through the ignorance, and the racists began to realise that they could seriously play. In 1979 Cunningham left the West Midlands for Real Madrid, and began to fight racism all over again on a different playing field, but Regis continued his work in England, becoming only the third black player to represent his country. He and his peers blazed a trail for the multicultural game we enjoy in England today, and for that they must never be forgotten.
But back to the goal – it was the Fifth Round of the FA Cup at the Hawthorns, and about halfway through the first half, with the game goalless, centre back Ally Robertson lobs the ball forward. Regis, back to goal, traps it with his chest, swivels and leaves his marker for dust. With gazelle like strides he motors away from the centre-circle, covers ten yards with two touches, and in one fluid motion rockets a shot into the top corner from 30 yards. A proper thunderbastard. There are a lot of lazy stereotypes that surround black footballers, even today. They’re “quick”,” athletic”, and “powerful”, but they “lack a football brain”. In this one goal Regis demonstrates almost all of his qualities as a footballer – yes, his pace and athleticism leaves the Norwich defenders in his wake, and yes his shot is one of such power it leaves a young Chris Woods in the Norwich goal with no chance of saving it, but it was those excellent first two touches – the chest down and swivel – that show how technically gifted Regis was, and the fleet of thought necessary to plan ten seconds ahead when Robertson’s lob forward was falling towards him exhibits his footballing intelligence. It was a goal of outstanding quality, a goal that fittingly won the game for West Brom, and a goal that will be emblazoned in my memory for the rest of my life.
Cyrille Regis’ sudden passing is a tragedy for the football world, but the foundations he and his contemporaries laid for the future of black footballers in the game will never be forgotten. A man of great dignity and respect, he was, is, and will always remain a role model. His legacy will live on in the game forever.
Cyrille Regis 1958 – 2018