The widespread outpouring of emotion sparked by the recent death of Cyrille Regis underlined the fact that he was not just simply a footballer but an inspiration to so many.
Part of West Bromwich Albion’s swashbuckling ‘Three Degrees’, Regis – along with Brendon Batson and future Real Madrid star Laurie Cunningham – would terrorise defences throughout the late 1970s and into the 80s
Arguably the first real black stars of the English game, they even had racists on the terraces – and there were plenty of them at the time – talking about how good they were.
The sad demise of Regis at the age of 59 gave the BBC another opportunity to screen a documentary made by TV sports presenter Adrian Chiles, a lifelong West Brom fan, in 2016.
It chronicled the testimonial match for Baggies stalwart Len Cantello in May 1979, in which the ‘Three Degrees’, along with other black players from as far down the footballing pyramid as Hereford United, took on a team of white players mostly comprised of the WBA starting XI.
In the cold light of 2018, the very thought of such a contest might make many a person wince.
However former Wolves, QPR and Leicester City defender Bob Hazell, who played on the black side that day, said in the film that it was “fantastic, great memories and a great day everybody wanted to be a part of”.
A galvanising moment
What was noticeable about the differing views on the game was that the black players remembered it with far more clarity than those the white players.
John Wile, Albion club captain at the time who played for the white team, reminisced: “I remember all these kids and faces that we’d never seen before, because there wasn’t that many black players playing at that level.
“The game itself I don’t really remember. I think that year I played something like 76 games. So it was just something else that happened at the end of the season.”
This could well be because the team with Regis and Co. won 3-2 on the day; or more likely, because this simply was an historic moment for black footballers in this country.
“This game, if anything, represented a burgeoning progress which the ‘Three Degrees’ would go on to encapsulate”
Only a few years before this match in May 1979, it would have been impossible to configure a side solely comprised of black players from the English footballing leagues.
This game, if anything, represented a burgeoning progress which the ‘Three Degrees’ would go on to encapsulate.
The film portrayed the feeling that the game brought those black players on the pitch that day together, and in a sense, the entirety of the black contingent within the leagues.
It was an important moment to those players even if it was not for their white counterparts. As former Wolves defender George Berry commented in the film: “We wanted to win.”
Institution of hate
However, the game itself was not the sole focus of the documentary, which in a case such as this would have been far too reductive in nature for the subject matter.
Horrific stories of racist abuse were recalled in the documentary, one of the most striking being that told by Berry about playing against West Brom.
“All I can hear from this West Brom fan is, you black b*****d, effing get back up the tree, you effing gollywog – and I’m marking Cyrille Regis!”
‘Death threats, racism, sexism, homophobia – social media risks becoming its own form of National Front-led terrace before our very eyes’
“I just said to this bloke doing the shouting ‘Who are you talking to? Me or Cyrille?’ Cyrille just shook his head.”
The partners, families and friends of black players were forced to stay away from matches even as the far-right National Front infiltrated the terraces. The higher-ups at the FA even refusing to permit Hazell to dreadlock his hair for fear of a backlash.
This was an age where racism around football was almost entirely unpoliced. According to one former NF member and Birmingham City fan, as huge quantities of bananas were bought pre-match ready to be hurled onto the pitch.
The presence of the NF on the terraces, at a time when football seemed to be a dying sport played in crumbling stadia, exacerbated those weekly displays of hatred and bile.
The documentary captured perfectly how the NF aimed to manipulate impressionable young people into doing their bidding.
One rather rotund National Front leader proudly proclaimed: “There is a lot you can do with a football hooligan,” adding that “football fandom is a form of patriotism”.
Happily ever after?
Today, 30 percent of British footballers are black. So given this, why are there so many barriers that still exist within the game?
And, putting the obvious lack of black and minority managers aside for a moment, has that racially-motivated hatred on the terraces gone for good?
Some would argue that improved facilities, leading to higher ticket prices, leading in turn to the gentrification of football, simply priced racism out of the game.
“In the now immortal words of Regis, ‘you’ve got to overcome’ “
Jason Roberts, nephew of Cyrille Regis and former Premier League striker, suggested as much during the documentary. The question posed in the film was: have the racists simply moved online?
Death threats, racism, sexism, homophobia – social media risks becoming its own form of National Front-led terrace before our very eyes.
People with Union Jack flag headers and a ‘Brexit means Brexit’ profile pictures scour the internet looking to aim internalised hatreds directly at people who look, feel and are different to them. Let’s not pretend many of them aren’t football fans – nationalism and fandom again side by side.
However, in the now immortal words of Regis – “you’ve got to overcome.” Thus the opinions of the faceless few on the internet should not denigrating the progress that has been made and which was sparked by the likes of Regis, Batson and Cunningham.
Regis and Batson would prove vital cogs in what was the most successful period in West Brom’s history.
Ironically this was overseen by manager Ron Atkinson – a man who whilst working for ITV in 2004 was accidentally heard describing Chelsea defender Marcel Desailly a “f*****g lazy thick n****r” – a sad reminder of how little some mentalities have changed over the years.
Cunningham would go one better than his fellow ‘Three Degrees’ and become the first British player to ever player for Real Madrid. Given race relations in Spain following the Franco years, this was no small achievement in itself.
Cunningham went onto bedazzle defenders at several other clubs before losing his life in car crash in Madrid aged 32. Dion Dublin and Ian Wright paid emotional tributes to their heroes, as if they were kids again, when reminiscing to Chiles.
Thankfully, we now live in a time in which racial hatred has no place in football, or anywhere else, although issues such as that glaring lack of non-white managers persist.
So much progress has been made, however and for that we have in part to thank the ‘Three Degrees’. They helped pave the way towards a far more beautiful game.
Whites vs Blacks: How Football Changed A Nation is currently on BBC iPlayer.