It’s hard to imagine just how far English football has come since those dark ages. But make no mistake – much of that progress is down to the path ploughed by one of football’s original and much-loved ‘Three Degrees’.
The world of football joined together to pay tribute to Regis yesterday after the shock news of his death from heart failure at just 59.
Little wonder, because the powerhouse former West Brom, Coventry and Aston Villa striker was a pioneer whose contribution to the game will live on forever.
It was the late Seventies when Regis exploded on the scene with Brendon Batson and close pal Laurie Cunningham, their appearance in the same Baggies side a national talking point.
The Three Degrees had arrived and they were to make sweet music as they helped sweep West Brom to third in the league and into the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup.
At that time, there was only one other black player in the First Division – Viv Anderson at Nottingham Forest.
Devastated – my hero, my pioneer, the man behind the reason I wanted to play football has passed away. My heart goes out to all his family
Regis was cool with his swashbuckling style, a footballing John Shaft who gave young black footballers a hero to pin their dreams on. He even appeared on the front cover of iconic music magazine NME.
Former Manchester United and England forward Andrew Cole tweeted yesterday: “Devastated – my hero, my pioneer, the man behind the reason I wanted to play football has passed away. My heart goes out to all his family.”
Regis, who went on to win five England caps, recalled that news of his first call-up in 1982 was not met with wholesale approval.
“In your head it made you angry – I mean calling you n****r, throwing bananas,” he remembered.
“The worst for me was getting my first England cap and receiving a bullet through the post saying, ‘If you put your foot on our Wembley turf, you’ll get one of these for your knees’.”
He used his anger as fuel on the pitch. Built like a tank, when Regis burst through the middle, defenders seemed to bounce off him.
Cyrille Regis changed the game forever
“Your armoury is your talent and a very good side,” he once said. “The more you shout at me, the more I get angrier, the better I play. Come give it to me.”
Broadcaster and West Brom fan Adrian Chiles praised the way in which Regis dealt with racism.
“I was privileged to get to know him as a friend and he just didn’t carry anger with him from that time,” said Chiles.
“Ian Wright, from a later generation of black players, said, ‘We were like Malcolm X…but Cyrille was like Martin Luther King’. Cyrille was always turning the other cheek.
“They did so much for the game and so much for the cause of black footballers.”
West Brom took a risk in signing Regis from non-League Hayes for £5,000 in May 1977, and it was richly rewarded as he scored 112 goals in 297 appearances.
Current Baggies chairman John Williams said: “Everyone will have their precious memories of him as a family man, as a crusader against bigotry – which can never be underestimated – and as a man who threw considerable energy into a series of worthy causes.
Cyrille Regis made a name for himself at West Brom
“But for me, I will never forget Cyrille the footballer – a wonderful, wonderful player who had everything, and who defenders of the time would have hated facing.”
He moved to Coventry for £250,000 in 1984 and lifted the FA Cup in 1987, earning himself a place in the folklore of another club.
John Sillett, Coventry manager at the time, said: “He was a gentle giant. You could not wish for a better team player than Cyrille.
“He was a majestic player on the ball, he had great vision, good touch and strength, unbelievable pace off the mark. A powerful, powerful player and he was so proud when England picked him.
“He loved his country, he loved his football and he loved his team-mates. He was so popular with everybody.”