Cyrille Regis: The gentle giant who braved it all

Cyrille Regis in full flow for West Bromwich Albion
Cyrille Regis in full flow for West Bromwich Albion

was standing on the Birmingham Road end of The Hawthorns, home of West Bromwich Albion, with a friend and 
fellow sufferer. It was our usual spot for home games, but this day – 3 September, 1977– proved far from usual.

It was the day I first saw a player who became my all-time hero – and a man who was to emerge as more than just a footballer.

Cyrille Regis, who has died of a heart attack, aged just 59, helped to change the face of the game forever, and, although no-one fully appreciated it at the time, helped heal the wounds of racial division.

Regis – a colossus of a centre forward – had been signed from Isthmian League side Hayes for £5,000 in the summer of 1977after a recommendation from Ronnie Allen, the striker who had led Albion to FA Cup glory in 1954.

So convinced was Allen of Regis’s talent that he told Albion he would pay the fee himself if the notoriously miserly club refused to meet the asking price.

Allen, Albion manager by the start of the 1977 season after the sudden departure of Johnny Giles, played Regis for the first time in a League Cup tie against Rotherham in midweek. Regis scored twice.

Now he faced Middlesborough in the First Division. Boro had just signed striker Billy Ashcroft, making his debut, from Wrexham amid much fanfare, but it was Regis 
who took to the top flight with aplomb, scoring one of the most memorable goals witnessed at The Hawthorns.

Even now, 40 years on, I can still conjure the moment from my memory, Regis taking possession on the halfway line, shrugging off two – or was it four? – Boro players and unleashing a shot into the top-right corner of the visitors’net.

I looked at my friend. He looked at me. Regis had arrived, and, from that point, Big Cyrille never ventured far from the hearts of the 
Albion support.

When Ron Atkinson succeeded Allen in 1978, he introduced a third black player, Brendon Batson, to the two already at the club, Regis and Laurie Cunningham, and the Three Degrees were born.

Until Cunningham’s departure to Real Madrid a year later, the first British player to make the journey to the Bernabeu, the Albion’s black trio propelled the club to the upper reaches of the English game, finishing third in the First Division and reaching the semi-finals of the FA Cup.

Regis went on to score 112 goals for Albion in a professional career spanning 19 years, making 614 appearances for West Brom and other clubs, including Coventry City (with whom he won the FA Cup in 1987), Aston Villa, Wycombe Wanderers, Chester City and Doncaster Rovers. He seemed almost indestructible on the park, but his impressive physique and his ability in the air belied a deftness of touch and lightning speed. He was the complete striker.

Named the PFA’s Young Player of the Year for 1978, Regis became just the third black England international as he followed in the footsteps of Viv Anderson and Cunningham – the first black player to represent England at under-21 level – winning the first of five senior caps against Northern Ireland in February 1982.

Yet, for all that, it is not Regis’s prowess on the football field that he is remembered for, but how he dealt with the climate of racial abuse in which he played.

Born in the rural town of Maripasoula in French Guiana in February 1958, Regis moved with his family to west London at the age of five to a city where families seeking housing would often be greeted by signs which read: “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs.”

For Regis, the prejudice of others was never far away. When called up by England, he revealed in his autobiography, My Story, how he received a bullet in the post. He wrote: “Clearly someone didn’t approve of my selection because they had cut out individual letters from a newspaper and stuck them on a sheet of paper to spell out a message that read, ‘If you put your foot on our Wembley turf, you’ll get one of these through your knees’.

“I looked back into the envelope and there was a cotton wool pad wrapped round something. I took it out, opened it up and there it was. A bullet staring up at me.”

The terrace abuse all black players received at the time was terrifying. The National Front were often a menacing presence at football grounds, and bananas were routinely thrown in the players’ direction.

It was a febrile atmosphere in which they plied their trade, but Regis did it with a dignity that left a lasting impression on me and many others of my generation. He never publicly moaned about the abuse, and, outwardly at least, refused to let it show that it meant anything at all to him. Indeed, Albion’s black v white benefit game for Len Cantello in 1979 – the black side was captained by Regis – was an indication of the players’ determination 
that the colour of your skin didn’t matter, whatever anyone else might think.

Regis was a gentleman on the pitch and off it. This tribute from Scot Ally Robertson, pictured, a long-time friend of Regis after playing alongside him in the Albion team of the 1970s, sums up perfectly the esteem in which he was held by all who knew him. “It’s impossible to describe how I felt when I was told the news this morning – I feel so sorry for his wife Julia and everyone he has left behind. Cyrille was a true great. We used to call him a gentle giant, he was the ultimate gentleman. I used to say he was too gentle, that is how great he was.”

Born into a Christian family, Regis turned to his faith again as an adult after the death of close friend Cunningham in a car crash in July 1989, two years after the pair had walked away from a similar accident. Regis was also a trustee for Christians in Sport, and of his nephew Jason Roberts’ Foundation, and worked as an ambassador for international charity Wateraid.

Regis was made an MBE in 2008 for his contribution to football 
and his services to the voluntary sector.

For me, though, he will for ever be one of the players who helped bridge the racial divide. The emergence of black footballers like Regis goes a long way to explaining why the area where I grew up – the West Midlands – did not explode in the racial violence predicted in the notorious Rivers of Blood speech delivered by Enoch Powell in 1968. The simple truth is that you cannot hate your heroes. And if your heroes are black and you are white, therein lies the seeds of understanding.

Regis was certainly one of the catalysts to more accepting times and the light by which many more black footballers made the transition into professional football. His passing came as a devastating blow yesterday, but his life should be celebrated. He made a difference, and how many of us can say that?