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'We can't afford to let our guard down,' says Dotun Adebayo

DEATH OF A LEGEND: Footballing hero Cyrille Regis playing for Aston Villa in 1993

I BAWLED my eyes out last week. In public. And I’m pleased to say that I wasn’t the only one. I wasn’t the only black man that wept like a baby at the news that one of our footballing heroes Cyrille Regis had died of a heart attack at the much-too-young age of just 59.

I don’t know why I started crying. At first I was shocked on hearing the news. And then I was stunned. And then I started feeling down. Down, down, down. I tried to not think about it, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it as more and more messages of shock and sympathy and condolence popped up on social media. This man was truly loved.

And not a single bad word against him. Not one. What a tribute to a man who meant more than the sum parts of his goals and all-round footballing skills. And it wasn’t just black folk that were feeling the loss either. The last time I remember that white folks really got what the death of a black sportsman meant to his community was when Muhammad Ali passed away.

At that time it seemed that everybody understood that he was ‘the greatest’ in and out of the ring and that what he represented for black people would resonate for decades and decades and decades. So too, I guess, with Cyrille Regis.

Within a couple of hours of his death the BBC had made the decision to repeat a documentary that he featured in. No mean decision given the hurdles you have to jump through to get the approval for such a change in the schedule.

The Corporation, too, got the significance of what Cyrille Regis represents as one of the first black professional footballers in this country and the phenomenally high regard that he is held by all and sundry in every corner of the nation.

And it reduced me to tears. No, not just the decision to screen the documentary again, but the amount of love that Cyrille was getting from everybody. People who, like me, didn’t know him from Adam, but whose lives were and are touched by him somehow.
I didn’t realise how much my life was touched by him.

Because he was always thought of as one of the ‘three degrees’ one of the trio of black British footballers (alongside the late, great Laurie Cunningham and the great Brendan Batson) that set the football league alight and who people tuned into Match of the Day to watch every Saturday night.

Whilst we were having so much fun with that newspaper catchphrase that likened the trio with the American soul group The Three Degrees who were said to be always ready to spend the night at Buckingham Palace at every beckoning of Prince Charles, it was convenient to not consider what else these footballers meant.

Only now as I think of how humble they were and how they changed Britain with their brilliance on the field and their dignity off it. But still, why was I reduced to a blubbering heap on the streets of north London at the news that someone I didn’t even know had passed away?

Particularly as I have for the last 27 years been at the forefront of the ‘BLACK MEN DON’T CRY’ movement. As I have often said, on these very pages, a black man who cries is a black woman. And a black man who cannot restrain himself from blubbering in public needs to go and get his nails done and his thighs waxed to give him something to cry about.

So I cannot explain it. I was ashamed to start off with and, if be truth be told, a little bit of that shame remains. But it was diffused somewhat by the intervention of the former Aston Villa and Manchester United player Dion Dublin. He couldn’t stop himself from blubbering when he was asked to comment on the death of Cyrille Regis on prime time television.

It wasn’t until I saw Dion burst into tears that I realised that there are some things that even black men cannot fight – death, taxes and tears when one of the greatest of their golden generation passes away. That is now the definition of a great black man. If you see other black men weeping uncontrollably on the streets you will know that a great black man has died somewhere.

Dion Dublin, then, has given black men everywhere permission to cry, in the same way as Captain Mainwaring used to give Corporal Jones permission to speak in Dad’s Army, but what does that do to us?

Does it make us softer, weaker, blubbier? Is it a positive thing or a negative thing for black men to be allowed to weep on the streets if they want to and feel the need to? Will it make us much more pleasant perhaps? The fact that we don’t have to be macho twenty-four seven? Or do black men still have to be black men in this day and age when society has still not given them the per- mission to be softer, weaker, blubbier?

Because that’s the reason why we have to be so strong and so tough – because of the harsh environment that we find ourselves in. And as much as we would like not to be that tough and strong all the time, we have had good reason to not trust letting our guard down.

The three degrees understood that. They trained hard to be harder than the rest. They trained tough to be tougher than the best. And they practiced their skills day- in and day-out to be the best of the very best.

That is the REAL lesson that Cyrille Regis and the other three degrees passed on to not just black children but white children too. That you can overcome all the distractors and hostility that comes your way and triumph over the adversity of the wider community by being strong of mind let alone of physique.

No, black men still can’t afford to be black women in this world that they find themselves in.

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