What Cyrille Regis means to me
Until his recent death at the age of 59, many of my generation would only have had a vague awareness of Cyrille Regis as a footballer.
After all, the centre forward had been retired for more than 20 years, having played his last match at the age of 38 in 1996.
But the countless tributes paid to him after his sad passing have served to show younger people just how much he was respected both as a player and a man.
Regis remains an inspiration and pioneer, having paved the way for so many others by being one of the first black players to become a true star of the game.
He remains the blueprint for what a striker should be about – strong, quick and direct, with a cultured first touch and the strength of character to overcome adversity.
In the case of Regis and his fellow black players in the 1970s and 80s, that adversity took the form of vicious racism on the terraces of England’s crumbling and neglected stadia.
He made his name in an era when football was a fertile recruiting ground for the ultra right-wing National Front, and abuse from fans – and even other footballers – was commonplace.
Regis was born in French Guiana but moved to the UK with his family when he was five, growing up in Stonebridge, north-west London, where as a schoolboy he showed potential in cricket, football and athletics.
After leaving school, he worked as an electrician while playing for semi-pro sides Molesey and then Hayes & Yeading. While at Hayes he was spotted by West Brom’s chief scout Ronnie Allen and the rest is history.
Allen then became manager but left mid-season 1977-78 to be replaced by Ron Atkinson. The new Baggies boss wanted to play an attacking brand of football, and Regis – along with two other black players, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson – was fundamental to his vision.
With a team also featuring Bryan Robson, West Brom went on to finish third and fourth in the old First Division, with Regis establishing himself as a feared attacking force.
In 1984, he moved to Coventry City for £250,000 – how many millions would he be worth in today’s market? – and helped them to lift the FA Cup in 1987.
In February 1982, Regis became the third black player to be capped by England after Viv Anderson and Cunningham, but only played five times for his country, and would surely have made more appearances but for the presence of Gary Lineker as a competing striker.
After leaving Coventry in 1991, he had spells at Aston Villa, Wolves, Wycombe Wanders and Chester City, making 701 appearances and scoring 205 goals in total.
But the bare stats of an impressive playing career are only part of his story; he was a role model who broke down barriers and helped black players gain wider acceptance at a time when football was still mired in racism and hooliganism.
Through his talent and determination, he changed how black players are perceived within the game, dismantling the pernicious stereotype of them being athletic but lacking in courage and intelligence.
Cyrille Regis and his fellow pioneers showed this to be absolute nonsense, and for that he will always be remembered.