Cyrille Regis transcended football. Here, Dave Woodhall talks about the impact he made on Midlands football, and on society in general.
I grew up with Cyrille Regis. Not in a personal sense; he was a player when I started getting seriously into football. And it might sound strange given all the justifiable things that have been said about his groundbreaking career, but that’s all he was. Maybe I was lucky but when I was growing up racism wasn’t all that big a deal in football, which was probably the problem. It happened and it was accepted.
It was alright for me, I wasn’t the black player having bananas and worse thrown at him or facing death threats if he had the nerve to represent his country. I wasn’t the Asian lad trying to get into football but being sworn at or beaten up for supporting my team. Cyrille Regis, his team-mates and others around the country were on the front line and it was only later, when I was older and seeing the wider picture, that I could acknowledge what they’d encountered, what they faced head on and beaten and what they’d done for football, and for everyone, of every colour, in the country.
Cyrille joined the Albion in 1977, the club’s then-chief scout Ronnie Allen saying that he would pay the £5,000 fee to non-league Hayes himself, so sure was he of the player’s ability. Allen had become Albion manager by the time Regis made his first team debut a few months later, in a League Cup game with Rotherham. Broadcaster Adrian Goldberg was in the crowd at the Hawthorns who witnessed the birth of a legend, “He was a big guy, and because of his background he didn’t seem to fit into a pattern with the rest of the team. He was raw but you could see there was something special about him.”
Regis marked that debut with two goals, the second a penalty that the crowd demanded he take. Three days later he made his league debut at home to Middlesbrough, scoring the first of his trademark goals with a run from the halfway line before unleashing a powerful shot from outside the penalty area. Cyrille Regis had already found his way to the hearts of Albion supporters who worship him to this day.
Ronnie Allen gave way to Ron Atkinson, who put together a team that played football in a way that became synonymous with his belief that first and foremost they should entertain him. Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson were the focal points of a side that could not only play, they were to become standard bearers against the backdrop of a society becoming increasingly fractured.
The previous decade had seen a bye-election in Smethwick notorious for the overtly racist campaign by eventual winner Peter Griffiths, while in 1973 West Bromwich saw the National Front’s only-ever Parliamentary deposit saved. This was the backdrop against which Regis and his colleagues played, yet the Hawthorns remained free of the racism that threatened to gain a foothold both in the area and within football in general. On the contrary, as author Chris Green says, “This was a time when if you complained about someone making a racist remark at a football match you’d probably be the one thrown out. Yet the SWP sold their literature outside the Hawthorns, with Three Degrees pictures on the front.”
Adrian Goldberg agrees, “The Hawthorns became a place where racists knew they had to keep quiet. Cyrille and the others must have played a part in the acceptance of black people in the Black Country.”
Years before football became fashionable the New Musical Express put Cyrille Regis on the front cover, a sign that the battle he was fighting was about more than football, and one of the first, tentative, indications that society was beginning to change. Regis, Batson and Cunningham had become more than local footballers, they were national figures – role models and icons.
On a more practical level Cyrille was idolised by Albion supporters who may not have realised the implications of the cultural battle being fought by their team but recognised a footballer who gave everything. Players who came through the non-league ranks are often more grounded, more appreciative of the support they get from the fans they were often amongst a few years earlier.
Cyrille was no different. Chris Green remembers, “He had a really strong working-class ethos. He came from a background that was incredibly difficult. His family had emigrated to Britain in the fifties and were split up at one point because they couldn’t afford to live together. What kept them going was a determination to better themselves and Cyrille never forgot those times.”
This mutual respect he felt with the fans was to follow Cyrille throughout his career. He spent seven years at Albion, a similar time with Coventry, famously winning the FA Cup in 1987, then began to wind down his career in a reunion with Ron Atkinson at Villa, where his experience helped nurture another side who challenged for the title with flair and a playing style that was a joy to watch.
There was further time at Wolves, Chester City and Wycombe Wanderers before the end of a career that would have been remarkable in any circumstances, but where the football he played only told a fraction of the story. In retirement Cyrille was as much a gentleman as he was a fearless centre-forward. He played for four Midlands clubs, was popular at all and respected everywhere else. He remained grounded, appreciative and had the humility that’s often found in those who have the most to boast about.
More than anything, Cyrille Regis was an inspiration. He did things that most of us wouldn’t have dreamed of, faced challenges we’d have run away from and made the world a better place. Adrian Goldberg perhaps sums Cyrille up best, “He empowered Albion supporters to challenge racism. You couldn’t talk about racial superiority when you supported a team that had Cyrille Regis playing for them.”