Cyrille Regis’s life story is a chilling reminder of a time, not so long ago, when racism was all-too-present in English football, and society, writes JANINE SELF
Turn back the clock 20 years, a measly two decades, and see if the following does not make you shift uncomfortably in your seat and gaze awkwardly at your shoes in a combination of embarrassment and disbelief.
It is the caption scrawled crudely across a team photo of Aston Villa.
The shudderingly awful description refers to the side put out by Ron Atkinson – yes, that Ron Atkinson – during his time as manager of Villa. Mark Bosnich and Shaun Teale happened to be the only white faces in the Big Ron line-up and the phlegm-filled bigots were having a field day.
Cyrille Regis was already in the twilight of his career, a Colossus of a striker and a signed-up member of the black footballing vanguard. These days, it is more difficult to imagine how skin colour painted people’s prejudices, but it was a major issue back then.
Big Cyrille, gentle giant, hero to West Brom and Coventry fans and admired by Wolves, Villa and Wycombe supporters, had to stand there and take it like a man. Monkey chants, bananas and, when he was called up to the England squad, his welcome present was a death threat wrapped up in a bullet.
Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson were dubbed “The Three Degrees” by Ron Atkinson – yes, that Ron Atkinson – when they played for him at West Brom. The trio even met the pop group for a cringe-making photo opportunity.
Even worse, they allowed themselves to be dressed up in Santa outfits with the headline, “Look who’s dreaming of a white Christmas?”
Now aged 52, Regis has decided to write his autobiography with the help of BBC radio broadcaster and author Chris Green. And while the story of his birth in French Guiana and upbringing on the mean streets of London is an interesting one, not to mention his boozing and womanising, it is the thorny issue of race which really hits the spot with this book.
As a boy, Regis saw signs saying “no blacks, no dogs, no Irish”. When he made his away debut for Albion in 1977 at Newcastle, Regis recalls: “There were monkey chants whenever we touched the ball. Newspapers were highlighting it by referring to our colour. Black pearls, black gold, black magic. It was a new phenomenon.”
Regis remembers Garth Crooks scoring a hat-trick for England against Denmark in 1978 and still being abused by England fans.
Regis received the bullet through the post, accompanied by a letter which read: “If you put a foot on our Wembley turf you’ll get one of these through your knees.”
Somehow, Regis maintained his dignity even if he found it harder to curb the other attractions of being a young, good-looking professional sportsman. Cyrille liked a party and he liked a lady, key ingredients in the poison which ended his first marriage.
Cyrille discovered religion, applied the handbrake to his extra-curricular lifestyle, and met his second wife Julia.
As a born-again Christian, he also takes a charitable view on the day Ron Atkinson – yes, that Ron Atkinson – let the “N” word slip during a broadcast that effectively ended his career as a pundit with ITV. The Regis verdict is that the words were racist, the speaker is not.
He writes: “People should be talking about what a fantastic football manager he was and the immense contribution he made to English football.
“I had known him for 26 years. I played for him, drank with him, had laughs and great times with him. He slips up once. Am I supposed to lock away the memories of all those good times because of that? With the many mistakes I have made in my life, I am the last person to judge him.”
Regis the footballer was fair, honest and direct. Now he raises money for charity, highlights race issues and acts as a players’ agent. The journey from Guiana, via London, non-League football, wine, women and song to spiritual contentment and an MBE has been a long and winding road.
- Cyrille Regis: My Story. The autobiography of the first black icon of British football is published by Andre Deutsch and released on September 9.