It was with shock and sadness that I heard the news, this morning, that Cyrille Regis had tragically died at the age of just 59. That he is a Baggies legend is beyond question, but the level of tributes that have poured from every part of the game demonstrates that he is a true legend of football.
From a personal point of view, Big Cyrille was my first footballing hero. Unlike my elder brother who watched him week in week out from the terraces, and was lucky enough to meet him many times while working for the club, my admiration of Regis was largely from afar.
I saw him play live on a handful of occasions and no one could fail to be impressed at the power and pace he possessed, not to mention that bullet of a shot. In my pre-teen years, however, I had to mostly be content with Match of the Day and whatever the incarnation of ATV’s football show was the time to get my Baggies fix, but even with those few glimpses plus the evocative words of the radio reporters eulogising over his abilities, it was easy for a young Baggie to make him a hero. His goal of the season against Norwich City in the 1982 FA Cup was a particular high point.
At that stage in my life, Cyrille was just a footballing hero for me. I had no appreciation of what he had gone through, and was still going through, as one of the few black players in the English First Division. While I was aware of the Three Degrees moniker, I didn’t, at the time, appreciate how ground-breaking a club West Bromwich Albion were at that time.
Because of what Regis, along with Batson and Cunningham at the Hawthorns, and George Berry, Viv Anderson and the likes elsewhere, many of the best English football players have been black. While he was lauded at the Hawthorns, and appreciated by others in the game at the time, he never got the recognition he deserved for England with only five caps, in common with many black players in the late seventies and early eighties.
Andy Cole said that Regis was the reason he played football, and I’m sure that there are many black players of that generation who feel the same way.
He wouldn’t have been at the Hawthorns were it not for the persistence and faith of another Albion legend, Ronnie Allen. As Albion manager in the summer of 1977, Allen had to persuade the board to part with £5,000 to sign a 17-year-old black centre forward from Hayes. Such was the the former England forward’s faith in Regis’s ability, he offered to pay the five grand out of his own pocket if the board weren’t prepared to sanction the signing.
He did sign of course, and made his first team debut in the League Cup on 31st August 1977 scoring twice in a 4-0 win over Rotherham United. Those were the first two of 112 goals he scored for the Baggies in 302 games before, to the disappointment of many a Baggie including myself, he was sold to Coventry City in October 1984 for a mere £250,000.
After helping the Sky Blues win the FA Cup, he spent time at Villa, Wolves, Wycombe and Chester before returning to what he described as “his club” as coach in the late 90s taking joint caretaker charge of the team with Allan Evans against Tranmere Rovers in March 2000 before Gary Megson was appointed.
In recent years, he has worked at the club on matchdays and done much to support many charities as well as the Kick It Out campaign that is still seeking to banish racism from our game.
A genuinely lovely man, a true gentleman and a fantastic football, I think everyone at the club expected him to be part of the furniture on match days for years to come.
The true loss, of course, will be felt by his family and friends, and my thoughts are with them at this difficult time. But make no mistake, Cyrille Regis was not just an Albion legend, he was a true football legend and he will be sorely missed by the whole game.
Rest in peace, Big Cyrille.