In the space of just eight days football lost two icons – Cyrille Regis MBE and Jimmy Armfield CBE.
Both players were immensely talented footballers, England internationals and cult legends at their respective clubs, most poignantly however, they were two men of such decency, honour and integrity.
In the first instalment of a two-part email we celebrate the life and career of Cyrille Regis…
CYRILLE REGIS (1958-2018)
Cyrille was a pioneer for black footballers in the game when he played alongside Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson at The Hawthorns.
He scored 112 goals in 297 appearances for West Bromwich Albion and became the first black player to win the PFA Young Player of the Year Award in 1978/1979.
Regis joined Coventry City for £250,000 in 1984 and went on to score 62 goals in 274 appearances for the Sky Blues and was a crucial part of their FA Cup-winning side in 1987.
He won five caps for England and went onto play for Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Wycombe Wanderers and Chester City before retiring from football in October 1996.
Regis was appointed an MBE in 2008, returned to West Brom as a coach before becoming a football agent.
Watch the BBC documentary: Whites vs Blacks: How Football Changed a Nation
PFA Trustee Garth Crooks pays tribute to his close friend Cyrille Regis…
Goodbye my friend.
It was 6:30am when I heard my phone click notifying me that I had a message. It read: sad sad news guys….Big Cyrille died of a cardiac arrest late last night. Batson.
I stared at the message for a second and then read it again but this time looking for a flaw in the communication. There was none. I rang Brendon, who immediately picked up, and asked him if he’d sent the text. He said he had at which point I simply hung up.
Cyrille Regis had gone.
I went back to bed suddenly feeling totally exhausted but couldn’t sleep. Shock has a funny way of dealing with us and we can never predict its affect. I lay in total darkness as my mind and thoughts started to drift back to the days we first met, played and laughed together.
Of course I was never one of the Three Degrees. That was only afforded to Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille and Brendon. An affectionate term that caught the imagination of the media during an extremely successful period for the 1970’s & 80’s African American female singers with the same name.
I was playing for Stoke at the time I met Laurie and he introduced me to Cyrille. I knew all about the boys and would, on occasions, join them in Maxwell Plums, a popular wine bar in Birmingham. I was desperate to be the Fourth Degree and envied the fact that they could share their experiences with each other. Racial abuse at football grounds was out of control and although we didn’t talk about it we somehow felt stronger together.
Strength in numbers was precisely the reason why all the black players playing professional football at the time jumped at the idea to play in Len Cantello’s testimonial game. The match recently shown on BBC television dubbed ‘Whites vs Blacks: How Football Changed a Nation’, was a novel idea at the time and a challenge thrown down by Cyrille’s West Brom’s team mates and we accepted. To suggest the match changed a nation is so absurd it’s like saying Cornwall is in Ireland! What it did do was provide a sense of pride and togetherness in a group of young black British lads desperate for belonging who suddenly found something that united them.
Cyrille Regis suffered like we all did from racism in those days but he never allowed it to diminish him. He was a giant both on and off the field and literally fed off the abuse. He would chuckle at the thought of the racist knuckle heads who thought that their abuse would somehow put him off his game. They couldn’t have been further from the truth.
He would take that abuse and use it as a proverbial bat to beat them with. This attitude was no better illustrated than in West Brom’s legendary 5-3 victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford. The boos and monkey chants were audibly heard throughout the game, so much so that commentator Gerald Sinstadt was compelled to announce his disgust. But it was the abuse that propelled Laurie and Cyrille into a state of utter focus that instigated their devastating form.
On his day, Cyrille Regis was unplayable. He only won five England caps and it should have been 65. Did racism play a part in the number of caps he should have won? Of course it did, but Big C would never have lost a wink of sleep over that. It was after all England’s loss.
I am not in the slightest bit surprised by the affection in which Cyrille was held or indeed some of the emotional scenes I have witnessed from some of his fellow professionals. To genuine football supporters around the country Cyrille Regis is a watershed moment.
He symbolises 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. How fitting that today across football grounds across the nation that silence will be broken by the applause befitting a legend.
The thoughts of everyone at the PFA are with Cyrille’s family, friends and former teammates.
Whites vs Blacks: How Football Changed a Nation
Lifelong Baggies fan Adrian Chiles introduces the documentary: “In 1979, a football match was played at the Hawthorns, home of West Bromwich Albion.
On one side 11 white players and on the other, 11 black players. Whites vs Black… yes, really!”
Watch the BBC’s documentary: Whites vs Blacks: How Football Changed a Nation
The documentary highlights the horrors of the era and presents them in appallingly sharp focus. However, it also shows that at the same time, football has helped tackle and challenge explicit racism. This was led by the bravery and brilliance of trailblazers Regis, Batson and Cunnigham!
The documentary includes hard-hitting interviews with Cyrille Regis, PFA Trustee Brendon Batson and PFA Commercial Director George Berry, who all played that day.