The word legend is used far too often in football. Last week the football world lost a true legend. Mr Cyrille Regis.
I have been going to football matches for more than 30 years now and have never once heard a racist football chant. Cyrille Regis was one of the reasons why.
Arthur Wharton, Jack Leslie and Walter Tull all preceded Regis as the first black players in the English leagues but none made the impact that Cyrille did.
Regis was spotted by West Brom scout Ronnie Allen while playing non-league football for Hayes. Hayes knew he was good, demanding a £5000 fee that West Brom would not pay.
Allen was a prolific goal scorer and former England striker, he knew a player when he saw one, West Brom didn’t.
Ronnie Allen took the extraordinary step of buying Regis out of his own pocket, such was his confidence Regis would make it in the top flight, he was right.
It didn’t take Cyrille long to establish himself at West Brom, Allen took over as first team manager soon after.
Regis continued to score establishing himself as one of the countries most feared strikers.
Young black children now had a hero they could identify with while playing the game they loved.
Regis was joined at West Brom by Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson, the three becoming known affectionately as the three degrees. Their collective black presence and football prowess was a magnet for the media which in turn attracted a racist clientele to The Hawthorns and every ground they played at.
Monkey chants and hate mail were an all too familiar occurrence. Cunningham was especially targeted because of the colour of his girlfriend.
The National Front would follow them around doing their best to poison the crowds against them, throwing fruit and starting disgusting chants.
Times were changing
The three stood firm, a togetherness had formed at West Brom, all three lads were popular at the club, the players saw them as mates, not black mates.
The West Brom fans saw them as players, not black players, times were changing….slowly.
Time passed, other players emerged, the racist taunts in the playgrounds across the country were turning to whispers.
I heard it in the playground during the early 80s as a very young child but football helped me see it for what it was, horrific senseless prejudice for reasons that I still can’t fathom. My team had black players, who I loved and respected, soon after, we signed a certain Mr Vivian Anderson.
Viv Anderson was the first black player to represent England. He was also a fantastic man and player, his smile lit the place up, he was at the end of his career but still oozed class.
It wasn’t long before white kids were pretending to be black players in the schoolyard, colour didn’t matter anymore, this was football.
Regis went on to win 5 caps for England and won an F.A. Cup with Coventry City.
Without players like Regis, who had the strength and dignity to rise above the hatred, things might have been different, slower to change.
Times have changed, thanks to men like Cyrille Regis.
R.I.P. Cyrille Regis 1958-2018
Dion Dublin breaks down when talking about Cyrille.