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'He changed football and the country'

REMEMBERED: Cyrille Regis

LESS THAN a month ago, football fans across the country were grieving following news of the untimely death of Cyrille Regis who died after suffering a heart attack. He was 59.

Supporters of all clubs were united in admiration for the former West Bromwich Albion, Coventry and Aston Villa centre-forward, who also played five times for England.

In tribute to a player hailed as a pioneer, Premier League clubs marked his passing with a minute of applause and the wearing of black armbands.

Regis emerged as a centre- forward in the top level of English football at a time when black players were rare and racial abuse from the terraces was widespread. Born in French Guiana in
February 1958, he moved to London with his family at the age of five.

However, he did not come through the youth ranks with a professional club, but was spotted playing non-league football for Hayes by a West Bromwich Albion scout as a teenager.

DEBUT

The youngster was signed by the Division One club in 1977 for £5,000. He scored twice on his debut for the club, a League Cup tie against Rotherham in September 1977, followed by a goal on his league debut against Middlesbrough three days later.

Hailed as an exciting and courageous centre-forward who thrilled crowds with his pace, strength and power, he certainly did thrill fans with his ability to score spectacular goals. He scored 112 goals in 297 games for Albion before moving on to Coventry, winning the FA Cup with the Sky Blues in 1987.

In 2004 he was voted as West Bromwich Albion’s all time Cult Hero in a BBC Sport poll, gaining 65 per cent of the vote. Also, in 2004, Regis was named as one of West Bromwich Albion’s 16 greatest players.

However, Regis will be remembered not just for his goals. When he joined West Bromwich Albion, he joined a club that had another hugely talented black player in winger Laurie Cunningham, which was rare at the time.

When full back Brendon Batson joined West Brom in 1978, the trio were given the uncomfortable moniker the Three Degrees, and were targeted for racist abuse at games. But along with his
teammates, Regis provided inspiration to subsequent generations of black British players.

During a recent interview just prior to his death, Regis recalled how he handled the racist
taunts from the stands. He said: “The racism we received was abhorrent, with five to ten thousand supporters shouting abuse, throwing banana skins and putting bullets through the post.

“Although the mindset of many managers and coaches was that black players were not good enough, we internalised the anger and used it as motivation to work harder, beat teams and become the best players we could be. We handled the situation with dignity.”

The former Division One star added: “Second generation black players like Ian Wright and John Barnes saw us playing and thought, ‘If they can do it, we can’, and it inspired them. I was raised in the Stonebridge Estate, Laurie Cunningham was from Tottenham and Brendan Batson from Grenada.

“Today, youngsters can still consider our example and think, ‘If they can do it, we can’.” However, Regis was not just an inspiration to the players who would go on to achieve great things in the game but also to black Britons who were fighting their own daily battles against racism in the workplace, the street and the playground.

In a statement, West Bromwich Albion said: “He became one of the great symbols of the fight against racism in Britain as a pioneer for black footballers across this nation and beyond.” Following Regis’ death, Ron Atkinson, who first managed Albion from 1978-81, told the BBC: “He got five international caps but today he would get 60 or 70 at least. I think he was the best centre-forward I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some top players. But I also think he was a better bloke than a player. In full flow there wasn’t a better sight in football.

“Visiting fans took to him. I can remember us playing at Leeds and we were all get- ting abuse, but he scored two wonder goals and afterwards he got a standing ovation from
the Leeds crowd.”

Football pundit Garth Crooks OBE described Cyrille Regis’ contribution to British soccer as a ‘watershed moment’. The former Tottenham and Man- chester United player said: “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.” His widow, Julia, added: “He came into football the hard way and never lost his passion for the game. He was a role model for so many because he always treated everyone he met with kindness and respect.”

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