West Bromwich Albion and England footballer blazed a trail for black players
Obituary, Cyrille Regis: Born February 9th, 1958; died January 14th, 2018 – iconic figurehead of the legendary ‘Three Degrees’ team
Cyrille Regis: ‘Every one of his goals would win goal of the month,’ said manager Ron Atkinson. Photograph: PA
Cyrille Regis, who has died aged 59 of a suspected heart attack, was a greatly admired centre-forward with West Bromwich Albion, Coventry and England and one of the first black footballers to make a significant impact on the British game.
Strong, quick and direct, he had an excellent touch and a very rare ability to score spectacular goals, typically picking up the ball from just inside the opposition’s half, beating a couple of players with a dynamic, powerful run, and then shooting from outside the penalty area with unerring accuracy – as epitomised by his Goal of the Season against Norwich in the FA Cup in 1982.
With Regis as the focal point and their manager, Ron Atkinson, looking to play entertaining football, the West Brom team he graced in the late 1970s and early ’80s was an exciting outfit that included Bryan Robson and, unusually for the time, two other black youngsters, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson.
Described by West Brom as “the iconic figurehead of the club’s legendary ‘Three Degrees’ team of the late 1970s” who “lit up the Hawthorns with his thrilling brand of forward play”, it seems scarcely credible that at one stage during Regis’s West Brom career, he and the other two degrees, were three of only four black footballers playing in the English top flight at the time. Nottingham Forest’s Viv Anderson was the fourth and as they went about their business, they were subjected to no end of unspeakable racist abuse from the terraces. Regis once received a bullet in the post, which he kept as a constant reminder not to let the banana-chucking bigots win.
“He also became one of the great symbols of the fight against racism in Britain as a pioneer for black footballers across this nation and beyond,” added West Brom in their warm tribute to a popular club servant whose outstanding qualities as a quite brilliant footballer were often overshadowed by his status as a dignified and more-than-willing role-model for other black players trying to make their way in the game. Former Manchester United striker Andy “Andrew” Cole described Regis as “my hero, my pioneer, the man behind the reason I wanted to play football”.
West Brom finished third and fourth in the First Division during Regis’s time, a fondly remembered era that ended shortly after he left in 1984. At his next club, Coventry City, he was an integral part of an FA Cup final win in 1987 and an influential figure in the club’s rise to top-half respectability. He played five times for England between 1982 and 1987 and would probably have won more caps but for the dominance during his time of the outstanding Gary Lineker.
Regis was born in Maripasoula, French Guiana, to Robert, a fisherman turned gold miner originally from St Lucia, and his wife, Mathilde (nee Fadaire), a seamstress, who came from Guadelope. After his gold-mining venture came to nought, Robert moved in 1962 to Britain to find work as a labourer. The family spent a year in St Lucia before joining him, when Cyrille was five, to settle in Stonebridge, north-west London.
Cyrille went to Cardinal Hinsley school (now Newman Catholic college) in Harlesden, where he showed talent at cricket, football and athletics. After school he worked as an electrician while playing as a semi-professional non-league footballer, first for Molesey in Surrey and then for Hayes in west London.
It was at Hayes that he was spotted by West Brom’s chief scout, the former England striker Ronnie Allen , who was so convinced of the young man’s ability that when the West Brom board voiced doubts about signing him for £5,000, he offered to put up his own money. That was enough to persuade the directors, and in May 1977, aged 19, Regis arrived at the Hawthorns.
Allen’s faith in him was repaid immediately: he scored twice on his debut in a League Cup match against Rotherham and then produced a goal of trademark brilliance on his first League outing against Middlesbrough, running with the ball from the halfway line before unleashing from the edge of the penalty area. He was named PFA Young Player of the Year in 1978 and, having played for England under-21s in the same year, was given his first international cap in 1982 against Northern Ireland, only the third black player to play for England after Viv Anderson and Cunningham.
“I had some great years at Albion but there was just a little sadness that we didn’t win anything,” he said. With 112 goals from 297 appearances there was no question that Regis contributed hugely to a happy period at West Brom, but if he had a failing it was that he was hardly as prolific as his poise and power suggested he could be. In contrast to Lineker, he was much less of a sniffer of close-range goals, and Atkinson only half-jokingly chided him for his inability to score scruffily inside the six-yard area. “Every one of his goals would win goal of the month,” he said ruefully.
Although he will be best remembered for his time at West Brom, Regis had an equally long spell at Coventry, where he played 274 games over seven seasons after transferring for £250,000 as a 26 year old. Regis’s last England cap came while he was at Coventry, against Turkey in 1987. By that time his strike rate was beginning to diminish, and after Sillett was replaced as Coventry’s manager by Terry Butcher in 1990, he was shipped on to Aston Villa, where he was reunited with Atkinson.
By now in his early 30s, he made 39 appearances in his first campaign there, but played more of a bit-part role as Villa were runners-up in the first season of the Premier League era in 1992-93, after which he dropped down a tier to join another Midlands club, Wolverhampton Wanderers, before finishing quietly with a season each at Wycombe in the Second Division and then Chester City in the Third. He had his last match in 1996, aged 38; across a 19-year career, in which he was a popular, resilient figure wherever he played, he made 701 appearances for his various clubs, scoring 205 goals.
After Chester, Regis returned to West Brom as a reserve team coach before setting up as a football agent over the next two decades from his base in Birmingham, where he had continued to live since signing for West Brom. He had become a born-again Christian after being deeply affected by the death of Cunningham in a car crash in 1989, and was a trustee of the Christians in Sport organisation as well as an ambassador for WaterAid. In 2008 he was made MBE.
His first marriage to Beverley ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Julia, by his two children, Robert and Michelle, and three grandchildren, Jayda, Renée and Riley.