The first time I saw Cyrille Regis, he was playing for Wycombe Wanderers in the first game at the McAlpine Stadium in Huddersfield. By that stage, he was nothing like the striker he had been, but what he had been ensured he retained respect, and the way he carried himself suggested the same. It was a big thing to see him, and it felt that way.
It was a bit like Bryan Robson. I’d seen him on TV and he was obviously nothing like the player he was.
As such, the early part of his career fascinated me. I had to know more.
That was how I came to know about Regis, the ‘Three Degrees’ and the way football had changed throughout the time that guy I’d seen play was a professional. That grouping with Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson is a case in point. The nickname was intended fondly, but it is impossible to escape the fact that it came about because it was unusual for so many footballers of import on the same team to be black.
There were around 50 black players in the English league at the time, subject to monkey noises and bananas being thrown at them wherever they went, and hate mail sent to their homes and clubs. In the face of a depressed society kicking angrily against people they saw as outsiders, the Three Degrees represented themselves and their club admirably. There is talk of a statue being erected to them. It would be a fine tribute.
Dignity in the face of abuse was to become something that Regis, and all other black players, demonstrated on a weekly basis, until attitudes began to change. And they did. Throughout the 1980s, English football culture began to appreciate black players – the likes of Viv Anderson, John Barnes and Regis (always Regis) not just being standouts for their teams but pulling on the Three Lions as well.
There were still a minority who railed against it, but their numbers were dwindling.
By the time Regis was playing for Wycombe, John Fashanu was hosting a Saturday night primetime TV show. Amongst all of the social progress, it is important to stress that the West Bromwich Albion of Regis were a damned good team. They achieved a flurry of top ten finishes and made their way into Europe as a result; black players proving they were just as good, if not better, than their white counterparts.
When news of Regis’ passing broke last week, I was surprised to be met with blank expressions from the generation below mine.
It turns out that while the names of Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham are still known, they’re known as big names in the history of West Brom – players who represented the club well. Their colour, their story, doesn’t really come into it.
A few days after I’d been taken aback, I was watching an episode of the reinvented Will and Grace, in which Will and Jack paired off with a couple of guys much younger than themselves. The episode itself wasn’t particularly memorable, but there was a moment that resonated with me.
Will, in the course of his evening, found himself frustrated with the easy-natured style of his younger partner, a man who had grown up in a time when being gay was accepted as a norm, and was blase about the names and incidents in gay history that Will brought up.
Society changes, and it changes quickly.
I’m not yet forty years old, yet I just about remember a time when black footballers weren’t accepted in England, and I certainly remember a time when gay people weren’t.
We are all living in a world that has been shaped, to a certain and unavoidable extent, by Cyrille Regis, by Brendan Batson and by Laurie Cunningham. It is a legacy that will continue, and their role in creating it should be celebrated.
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As Will went on to point out, the moment we forget the suffering and the battles that those that got us here fought is the moment that it might all be taken away.
So celebrate the life of Cyrille Regis, celebrate the career of Cyrille Regis, and all that he stood for. He was a good man, and he was an important man, and anybody who professes to enjoy football today can only do so in part because of what Cyrille Regis, and all black players in the 1970s and 80s had to suffer on the way.
Image credit: The Independent