The Club’s archivist and Albion News editor Dave Bowler presents a personal tribute to one of the true greats…
T.S. Eliot reckoned that April was the cruellest month. “Wasteland” or no “Wasteland”, if he were still around, he’d want his head looking. It’s January you idiot. For January isn’t just cruel. It’s vicious, vindictive, larcenous, murderous.
Just as the Throstletariat was preparing to mark the passing of Jeff Astle in another January 16 years ago, the fates dealt us another devastating, agonising blow with news of the horribly premature passing of Cyrille Regis, Astle’s successor in the number nine shirt, just a few weeks short of his 60th birthday.
If you try to take it in, it’s a blur. A blur of blue and white, of yellow and green, of the power and the glory, amen. Scattered images of goals scored, defenders dumped, memories burnt deep into the synapses.
But like all the real legends, a Brown, a Barlow, a Johnston, a Taylor, the thing that marked Cyrille out wasn’t mere sporting talent. It was a greater gift by far that he shared with us. Humanity.
They all impressed us with their football sure, but more importantly, they touched the soul with their presence. Think of them and it isn’t a goal that comes to mind. It’s a smile, warmth, something shared, a communal experience, a shaft of light explaining momentarily what it is to be human before it flits away again.
That’s what made Cyrille ours because the rest of the country, those without the rare joy of watching him every week, saw only the footballer. We saw the man.
Know this about Cyrille Regis above any of his deeds on the football field. Cyrille was a great human being first and foremost, a man of dignity, integrity and, in later years, of serenity. Never mind the football, he was the kind of man you’re proud to know, genuinely privileged.
We, the fans, are lucky. For us, legends never die, they just burn brighter and brighter as the years grow dimmer and dimmer. It is the family, the friends, they are the ones with a gaping hole that can never be replaced, for if you think Cyrille was a larger than life presence on the pitch, he was just the same away from it. Quieter, more reflective perhaps, but charismatic, wise, compelling, inspiring.
When he spoke, quietly for the most part, you listened, you hung on each word. Those who had that opportunity to speak with him on a day to day basis…well, we can only think of them and hope they find the strength they need to cope with their loss because the scale of it must surely be immense.
We the Throstletariat, we will come together, we will remember him and we will always do so with a smile and a “bloody hell!” whistle of awe and admiration for the big man bulldozing through it all, defenders on the pitch, bullets and bananas off it. How that hatred that he somehow rose above didn’t instead turn him sour is a wonderment. It’s also an object lesson in the priceless life skill that is grace under pressure.
For if any man was entitled to grow angry with the world, it was Cyrille Regis. Growing up in England in the 1970s was no picnic for any black youngster and to those who only see the world from today’s vantage point – accursed and disfigured though it still is with racism towards colour, towards religion, towards migrants – it is hard to describe how raw in tooth and claw that vile bigotry was 40 and 50 and 60 years ago.
But then take that onto the national stage as Cyrille did, along with Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson, George Berry, Bob Hazell, Clyde Best, Viv Anderson, Ade Coker and you’re ramping up the hatred to a whole new level among the intellectually challenged who see only colour rather than people.
Cyrille in particular was the trailblazer, the focal point, the face of it all, for he was such a wholly improbable figure. In the intervening 40 years since he made his Albion debut, I’m struggling to think of any footballer, anywhere, who had so obviously stepped out of a comic book illustration and onto the football field.
If Marvel weren’t Americans and therefore immune to the beautiful game until comparatively recent times, they’d have invented Cyrille Regis years before we found him playing in non-league football while working on a building site.
People talk about Roy of the Rovers but that’s not the half of it with Cyrille, our domestic comics too parochial to truly encompass what this man was all about. It needs the cosmic scale to do him justice.
Yes, he scored goals that only Roy Race had hitherto knocked in, but Cyrille was the caped crusader and the man of steel too, out there righting wrongs and avenging the downtrodden, simply by being who he was.
Who was he? The impossible footballer. Wearing a shirt several sizes too small for him – Brendon Batson insists he did it deliberately but I suspect it was simply because Umbro hadn’t got enough material in the factory to cover a muscular frame that bulged like Popeye on a spinach overdose – he’d clearly got changed into it in a phone box, chucking his cape over his shoulder before bursting through the dressing room door as Supercyrille, ready to save the world. Or at least the Albion, which is much more important when you think about it.
I jest, because helping save this country from itself is a far greater achievement and, on this desolate day, a more fitting epitaph. It was symbolic, albeit accidental, that he – and Brendon and Laurie – did it just up the road from where post-war Britain reached its nadir, in Smethwick, at the 1964 General Election where the Conservative candidate won the seat with help of campaign literature that declaimed, “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”.
Ours is also a football ground that lies atop the Birmingham Road which leads to the centre of the city a handful of miles away, where Enoch Powell gave his notorious “rivers of blood” speech in April 1968. That Cyrille Regis should be parachuted into such a place, less than ten years later, well, it makes you think that there is such a thing as divine intervention after all.
For Cyrille was the kind of man who disarmingly dismantled all of those foaming prejudices simply by virtue of the man he was. Genuine, honest, full of life, a fully paid up member of the one race that counts, the human race.
His personality alone must have given countless people pause for thought, caused them to look again at Powell’s incendiary rhetoric and shake their heads at yesterday’s man, while tacking a poster of Cyrille Regis – the future’s man – on the wall.
It wasn’t merely that Cyrille was simply so likeable though. In a game that teems with military clichés and fawns over brave players who have simply got up from a bad challenge or refused to hide after missing a string of chances – and he did all that – Regis was courage personified. He and his generation of black footballers had to be.
Bravery is getting off the team bus only to be confronted by National Front protestors who have brought with them a mouth full of phlegm especially for you.
Bravery is getting on the pitch and doing your job while bananas are chucked at you.
Bravery is scoring goals while opposition fans spew out “Nigger, nigger lick my boots”.
Bravery is pulling on an England shirt after you’ve received a bullet through the post. Imagine that. Cyrille Regis, selected to make your national team better and the only response someone has is to send him an anonymous bullet through the post because Regis isn’t white, before scuttling back to his lonely room and wet dreams of a Tippexed world.
You might be horrified by those images, that language, especially if you are of a younger generation. But if you want to know why you’re so shocked, it’s because it rarely happens any more, outside the similarly anonymous sewer of social media anyway.
It doesn’t happen so much any more because people like Cyrille Regis stood up to it, braved it, faced it down, laughed at it. Because if you think about it, if somebody thinks a man is less than him for being black when he himself is a racially aggravated cretin, what response is there but to laugh?
When I asked him about it, countless times, he used to say, “You can’t let them win. What was I going to do, fight 10,000 of them, one by one? So you just trusted your talent. You went out there, played well, scored your goal, looked at them and gave it the old Asda price” tapping his back pocket. Jesus Christ but he was cool wasn’t he? Cooler even than Laurie in his way, even if Laurie had the clothes and the moves.
He wouldn’t have had that impact he had if he hadn’t been cool, if he hadn’t been so outrageously gifted, so ludicrously exciting that it was almost funny. And his impact was an overnight one. After smacking in two against lower division Rotherham in the League Cup, his league debut against Middlesbrough the following weekend cast the die.
Dragging half their team behind him as they tried to rugby tackle him in a misguided attempt to stop him – they’d have probably had to hit him with a JCB to do that – Cyrille powered across The Hawthorns and, after running 40 yards or so, creamed the ball into the Boro net to win the game and launch a new career, a new life. His name is Cyrille Regis and he’s better than Andy Gray. You’d better believe it.
From there, it was a litany of goals and triumphs. The PFA Young Footballer of the Year, England international honours at Under-21, B and, scandalously late, senior level in 1982.
The goal that defeated the invincible Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup sixth round in 1978, getting on the end of a long ball out of defence and first time drilling it past the goalkeeper – not any goalkeeper mind, Peter Shilton, in the form of his life.
The afternoon of frustration in the 5-3 at Old Trafford when Gary Bailey played like a man possessed, fighting a one man war against Cyrille until finally he would not be denied, pummelling the ball past him and whirling in relief to the acclaim of his colleagues.
The day we went top of the First Division for the first time in an age in January 1979 when Cyrille’s slashed shot across the face of goal flew into the corner of the Norwich net, the day we thought we would win the league.
The “Goal of the Season” in 1982, bludgeoned from ridiculous distance, again past a helpless and hapless Norwich goalkeeper.
That beaming, million kilowatt film star smile that he’d switch on after he’d scored any goal, one which meant we could have turned The Hawthorns’ floodlights off for a bit.
The knowledge that, no matter how badly we were playing, how lousy the season, how good the opposition, you simply had to turn up on Saturday because Cyrille was playing.
That’s not just something that comes from being a great player. There are plenty of those that don’t inspire the same emotion, devotion. It comes from being an alchemist, an illusionist, a miraculist who could do seven impossible things before half-time and still make it seem commonplace.
It comes from being a great entertainer, a great man, someone that we wanted to be around, in whose orbit we wanted to be whenever that was possible, even if we were 100 yards away.
Cyrille’s was a magnetic personality and it was that which took him into the realm beyond the football pitch, transcending the game without ever trying to do so. In later years, chastened by the death of Laurie Cunningham on a Spanish roadside, called on by his God to moderate his lifestyle, luxuriating in family and friends, his was the realm of the elder statesman, the man who had changed his country, like Nelson Mandela but with a better right foot.
Looking fitter than any man half his age had a right to, news of his passing was all the more shocking and shattering for that. There seemed to be a million miles left in the tank only for us to find that somewhere, some bugger had siphoned them off.
Now called to that God who he followed so faithfully, he leaves this mortal coil desperately the poorer for his absence but immeasurably richer for his contribution. Would that all of us can say that at the end.
Rest easy Cyrille.