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In January this year football lost one of its heroes. A man who united people from different backgrounds. A man who could be said to have broken down barriers. He confronted racism and discrimination head-on, largely by showing it wasn’t going to affect him. He turned the boo-boys and bullies into supporters.

He was Cyrille Regis.

REGIS SHIELD

Today at The Hawthorns is the inaugural Regis Shield. West Bromwich Albion will line up against Coventry City, two of Cyrille’s clubs. People will join to remember a humble man who changed football purely by force of personality.

Few players are ever afforded the honour of being universally known by their first name. Even fewer give their name to a match in their honour. But mention the name Cyrille and everyone knows who you mean. A man who united all, whether you supported his club or not, you admired him for his strength, desire, determination and courage.

DAYS WHEN YOU COULD RELATE TO PLAYERS

These were the late seventies and early eighties when football fans could still relate to the players they watched every Saturday. These weren’t too far from the days when Tom Finney used to travel with supporters on the bus to matches. These were the days when you could’ve played against a player as a kid, who then made it as a professional footballer. We lived through our heroes then, they were us. We dreamed about being them, we pretended to be them in our kick-a-bouts in the street. We mimicked their posture, their peculiarities, their mannerisms, their celebrations.

This was when players were all different, there were tall ones, short ones, fat ones, thin ones, bald ones, ginger ones, lazy ones and those faster than the proverbial off a shovel. Players could be plucked from non-league or just the lower leagues and turn out for the big boys and it helped fuel the belief the dream was possible for all of us.

They were us. We were them, and we loved them for it.

Sure we had clubs we hated, our rivals, those we despised. But more often we admired other clubs and other players. Down the years some have transcended rivalry, have fought through bigotry to be roared on by fans from all sides.

Cyrille did that.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Born in French Guiana, a French territory on the South American mainland, in February 1958, Cyrille came to England in 1963. Cousin of John Regis, the 200 metre record holder, he trained as an electrician when he left school and then at the age of eighteen he joined Molesey in Surrey. A year later he moved to Hayes and this was where he was spotted by former West Bromwich Albion legend and now Chief Scout, Ronnie Allen. He encouraged the club to take a punt on the youngster, although they baulked at the four figure sum being suggested. Allen was so certain Regis would make it that he offered money from his own pocket to get the deal done. In May 1977 Regis joined West Brom for the princely sum of £5,000. By way of comparison, a couple of months later Liverpool broke the British transfer record when they signed Kenny Dalglish to replace Kevin Keegan for £440,000.

WEST BROM

Allen then took over as manager at The Hawthorns when Johnny Giles resigned. Regis scored on his debut for the reserves and so Allen threw him into the first team for the League Cup game against Rotherham United in August 1977. He scored twice in a 4-0 win. He earned a starting place against Middlesbrough the following weekend, and scored again.

The goal? Well, it was to become his calling card, his blueprint. If you ever watch highlights of his goals so many are like this.

He picked the ball up near the halfway line, ran towards the penalty area and unleashed an unstoppable shot past Northern Ireland international goalkeeper, Jim Platt.

It was a goal just like this which was voted goal of the season for the 1981-82 season against Norwich. Norwich played the ball forward into the Albion half and centre-back, Ally Robertson, knocks it back into the Norwich half where Cyrille has dropped back to take the ball on his chest. He is almost on the edge of the centre-circle with his back to goal. The ball drops to his feet and he turns tightly to leave one defender floundering. You then have the hilarious sight of another Norwich defender trying desperately to get hold of Cyrille in a manner reminiscent of Lilliput people trying to grab Gulliver. Cyrille is now away and driving towards the Norwich defence, those legs pumping, the crowd roaring him on. Thirty yards out he looks up, sets himself and unleashes a fearsome drive which roars into the top corner of the net.

These days many a player can fire a shot from that far out as the balls and the boots have changed. But back in these days the balls were heavier, the pitch muddier and less chance of a sweet strike. But Cyrille larrups it to such an extent that if this was a park kickabout, you’d need to take a couple of bus rides to fetch it. You can tell from his teammates reaction they’d seen it all before and that was just Big Cyrille.

AN IMPOSING FIGURE

Cyrille was an imposing figure. Many teams had big strikers, or “the big number nine” as they were known, but few as mobile or as fast as Cyrille. He had huge thighs and he would just run at defenders in a way which left you believing he would need the fans on the terraces behind the goal to move aside just so he had room to slow down to a stop. Defenders would bounce off him, be left in his wake, floundering to reclaim whatever glimmer of self-respect may be left.

But perhaps more importantly for the time, Cyrille broke boundaries. When he signed for West Brom there had never been a black player represent England at full level, although his teammate Laurie Cunningham, was capped by the Under-21 team a month before. Viv Anderson finally broke into the full side in November 1978. Cyrille became the third black player to represent England when he came on as substitute against Northern Ireland in February 1982. He would never complete a full ninety minutes for his country, winning just five caps at a time when there were plenty of strikers to choose from. Maybe this enhanced his cult status. Records are littered with players supporters rated who successive England managers did not.

At West Brom, manager Ron Atkinson was building a team which would take on the might of Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in the First Division. Along with Regis and Cunningham he had a young right-back, Brendon Batson. The three of them would become known as The Three Degrees, a popular black female singing group. They were undoubtedly an inspiration for many young black kids who had believed the world of professional football was not for them, would not welcome them.

WHAT A GOAL!

December 1978 at Old Trafford they unveiled their own brand of champagne football, or samba football as they embarrassed their hosts in a 5-3 win. Cunningham graced either wing, Tony Brown buzzed, harassed all day in midfield and above it all was Big Cyrille. He scored the fifth but shortly before that he lashed a left foot shot first time from outside the area which rattled the post. The fifth was typical of the game. United had resorted to trying to kick lumps out of these young upstarts who should’ve known better than showboat at their manor.

The ball is down by the West Brom right corner flag when Ally Robertson nicks it off Steve Coppell. The ball runs to Cunningham who just turns and runs and runs and runs into the United half. He slows down then passes the ball forward to Ally Brown in the inside right position. Brown turns inside then plays a lovely weighted pass for Regis who is now thundering forward like a juggernaut. United captain, Martin Buchan, has given up the chase by now and Regis meets the ball first time eight yards out and without breaking stride he fires it into the roof of the net.

Gerald Sinstadt is the commentator and you can hear him enjoying the football on show by the minute. It was almost as if he just couldn’t believe things could get any better. But these players with no real pedigree, who were taking apart men with much bigger contracts, cars, reputations and egos.

Once the net just about manages to hold itself together after the Cyrille thunderbolt, Sinstadt can control himself no more, and utters a famous line;

“Oh what a goal! By Cyrille Regis!”

All with added inflection in the voice so the ‘what’ and ‘goal’ are said at a higher level to the rest of the line.

I can remember listening to Sports Report on Radio Two sometime in late 1979 when West Brom had won and they announced that the club had gone to the top of the First Division for the first time in their history. Atkinson had built a wonderfully attractive young side with the likes of Regis, Cunningham, Robson, Statham, Batson, Owen along with more mature and wily knowledge of Wile, Robertson and the two Browns. They never won anything, with an FA Cup Semi-Final in 1978 being the peak. After finishing third in the League in 1979 they also reached the UEFA Cup Quarter-Finals.

Cyrille brushed off racist abuse like he brushed off defenders when he was marauding towards goal. When he was called up for England for the first time he was sent a bullet in the post. Undaunted this just made him more determined to make something of himself and prove the haters wrong, and boy did he. “I kept it as a reminder of the evil some people had inside them. For the rest of my playing days it was a motivation that they weren’t going to stop me”.

COVENTRY CITY

After seven years, two hundred and thirty three appearance and eighty two goals, Cyrille moved to Coventry City where he played almost as many games. His crowning glory was the FA Cup win in 1987 against overwhelming favourites, Tottenham. He forged a potent partnership up front with Keith Houchen throughout that cup run. Both strong in the air and capable to scoring goals. Regis had a goal disallowed in the Final after Houchen was penalised for a push. Watching it back he would appear to have been unlucky with that decision. Think about Brazil’s goal against Switzerland in the recent World Cup. That was ruled ok even after VAR.

There can’t have been many more popular winners of an FA Cup medal than Cyrille and if it had been down to a public vote he’d surely have received more.

His twelve goals that season earned him a surprise recall to the England squad as Bobby Robson gave him one last hurrah against Turkey. Unfortunately, Cyrille never found the net for his country but this didn’t diminish his legend one bit.

In the summer of 1991 he moved to another Midlands club, Aston Villa where he played two seasons before ending his career at Wolves, Wycombe and finally Chester City. It was a career which spanned almost twenty years, with plenty of memories and many inspirations.

How many other players play for so many rival clubs and are still loved by supporters of them all? He was one of those players who would arrive at your club, you’d claim him as your own, then he’d move on. No malice, no bitterness. What was there to hate with Cyrille?

He had a charisma, an aura. He’d leave you feeling if you walked into a pub and he was at the bar, you could pull up a stool and begin chatting. He also appeared unaware, or unfazed by his fame.

In 2008 Cyrille was awarded an MBE for his services to football and charity.

HIS BIG HEART GAVE IN

15th January 2018 it was announced Cyrille had died from a heart attack, a month short of his sixtieth birthday. For a man with such a big heart it seems particularly cruel his own was the one battle he couldn’t tackle. The tributes poured in.

Jacqui Oatley, journalist and presenter:

There are not many West Brom legends who could walk through the door at Wolves and be idolised from day one. Such was the respect that Cyrille Regis commanded. Revered in the West Midlands and way beyond.

Pat Murphy, journalist and broadcaster:

In all my decades of covering Midlands football, there has been no figure more admired and loved among we reporters than Cyrille Regis. He scored goals we dreamed of while lying in the bath, routed the racists, respected the fans – and smiled.

Players such as Dion Dublin, Shaka Hislop and Mark Bright were equally reverent in their acknowledgement of the inspiration of the man and how he was the reason they went into football.

It is very difficult to accurately put into words the mark this man made, but rest assured if you choose to look up his record, his moments, his career, you will not be disappointed. He may not have earned the medals, the caps, the plaudits as others did. But some achievements are too big to simply be given a label or a medal. Many league teams are well represented by black players these days. Forty years ago this wasn’t the case. Players such as Cyrille, Cunningham and Batson have made it possible for this to happen.

Football lost a colossus.


We talk about Cyrille Regis in our latest RetroMatch podcast which is all about the 1987 FA Cup Final.

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