2018: The ones I’ll miss most: Cyrille Regis, who answered Man United racist boos with a starring role in the “Game of the Century”


In this series of pieces, Prost owner Steve Clare looks back on the athletes who died in 2018, that in some way affected his sporting life.

Part 1 – 2018: The ones I’ll miss most: Eric Bristow – the Crafty Cockney

There are many people whose lives have been far more affected than mine by Cyrille Regis. Among the would be every black player who came after him whose path was just a tiny bit more hopeful because of his bravery and every West Brom fan who watched the great man play for the Baggies can definitely lay more claim to a emotional attachment than I can.

Being brought up in one of the most diverse and multi-racial places in Britain and with one of my first televised experiences being watching the great Pele inspired Brazil side, it never struck me as abnormal to see black men playing football.

However for many it was. And for those brave men who were the first to endure that hostility, I cannot begin to imagine the horror or fear experienced for just trying to play the game you love.

I knew of his significance individually but like many it was more as part of of the great triumvirate of Regis, Brendon Batson and Laurie Cunningham who regularly started games for West Brom. To put three black men in a starting XI in the English top tier then was unheard of, but then Albion manager Ron Atkinson did it.

Jim Cadman, from the Celebration Statue initiative who launched the campaign to have a statue for the three Degrees as Regis, Batson and Cunningham were nicknamed, said:

“The three players opened the gates to allow black players into football at a time when they were locked out.”

Jim Cadman, Celebration Statue Initiative

Regis was exotic to me in other ways than his colour, though looking back at my rationale it seems so delightfully childlike. Whereas Cyril was a name going out of fashion and seemingly for old men like MP Cyril Smith, cricketer Cyril Washbrook, Cyril Connolly and the man who read silly poems on That’s Life, Cyril Fletcher, Regis spelled it exotically with the double ‘L’ and the ‘E’. It was French and pronounced properly conjured up images of Martinique.

This wasn’t so far off as he was born in Maripasoula, in French Guiana which is actually part of the South American mainland. If anything, that made him even more exotic. But that slightly bewildered understanding of world geography was less of an influence than actually watching him play.

Like few players before or since, he had a certain presence on the field. Perhaps it was merely the way he occupied the space he occupied, something that I cannot find the exact words for with just ten days left in the year. I refuse to write he lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, because he definitely had it and it’s just a terrible phrase.

Maybe it’s more helpful, rather than struggle for an inadequate synonym,  just to name some of the other players who in my lifetime fall into that category and had the same effect. I am going to limit it further to players I saw live: Clyde Best, Pat Jennings, Eric Cantona, Leo Messi, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Thierry Henry and Gianfranco Zola all spring to mind. They all mesmerised me in the same way Regis did.

All of them seemed, at the various stages of my life I saw them, to be just a little above the mortal man, and to possess an innate football DNA that extended beyond the raw talent of other greats like Osvaldo Ardiles, Kenny Dalglish, Gary Lineker, David Beckham, and Liam Brady. 

I could always picture Beckham modeling suits or Lineker becoming the new Des Lynam; both of which they do admirably well. It’s hard to imagine Pat Jennings ever being as good at anything as he was at being goalkeeper for Spurs, Arsenal and Northern Ireland.

Regis also blazed a trail as the third black player to play for England behind Viv Anderson and Cunningham, if you ignore the legacy of Leeds United full back Paul Reaney. Reaney was “fortunate” enough to appear light skinned enough not to attract the attention of the neanderthals who dished out terracing racism. Sadly Regis and his colleagues did very much attract the attention of the neanderthals.

From West Bromwich Albion: The Top 100 Matches
By Tony Matthews

For many, none of his five England games were as iconic as one afternoon in Manchester on December 30th 1978, in a match I still recall as one of the greatest televised matches I ever watched.

Just to call it that ‘famous game where West Brom beat Manchester United 5-3 at Old Trafford’ barely does it justice. Others called it the ‘Game of the Century’.

Few league games that decided no trophies or didn’t cause a riot have their own wikipedia page. 

Len Cantello’s 28th minute goal was voted Goal of the Season for 1978–79 on ATV’s Star Soccer show. That goal contained Cunningham beating two men and a Regis backheel. 

United keeper Gary Bailey made one of the fines saves I have ever seen from a Regis right footed piledriver; then made another one nearly as good from Regis’ left peg to keep him off the scoresheet. Both his right and his left footed efforts would have been worthy of plaudits alone had the magnificent Bailey not been on hand to deny him.

United stood tenth that morning and the Baggies were league leaders. Nonetheless Brian Greenhoff gave the Red Devils the lead. Cunningham and Regis provided the assists for Albion legend Tony Brown’s equaliser and Cantello’s wonder strike. Greenhoff scored his from a volley outside the penalty area. That’s how great this game was. No-one remotely remembers that goal. Gordon McQueen and Sammy McIlroy restored United’s lead before Brown leveled on the stroke of half time.

For the Baggies however, assistants turned goalscorers as Cunningham (supplied by Regis) scored Albion’s fourth and Regis himself (supplied by Ally Brown after a 50 yard lung bursting run from Cunningham) scored the fifth to silence the boos which were so appalling at one point that ITV’s Gerald Sinstadt felt obliged to mention it during his commentary. .

Of the 45,091 crowd, most were Manchester United fans whose racist booing you can hear throughout the game.

Batson later described the 5–3 win as:

“a seminal game [for black players]in many respects because of how well we played.”

Brendan Batson West Bromwich Albion 1978-82

Some of those who participated re-united in 2012 to commemorate the game. the occasion was held partly to raise funds for a £200,000 statue of Regis, Batson and Laurie Cunningham (above) being planned for West Bromwich town centre.

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Laurie Cunningham was killed in a car crash in Madrid in 1989. He was the first Englishman to play for Real Madrid. He was that good.

Brendon Batson is the sole survivor of the three and has campaigned against racism in football throughout his post career life. He is an honorary patron of Show Racism The Red Card.

The outpouring of genuine grief came from not only his former clubs, West Brom, Coventry City, Aston Villa, Wolves, Wycombe Wanderers and Chester, but the Football Association who displayed his name on Wembley Stadium.

Regis died prematurely from a heart attack on 15 January 2018. 
On 28 July 2018, West Bromwich Albion and Coventry City played in a friendly match dubbed the ‘Regis Shield.’

In some ways, and very sadly, Cyrille Regis’ heroism in the face of utter stupidity and nastiness has served as a shield for the generations lucky enough to have followed in his footsteps.

Cyrille Regis. Photo taken in 1978.
RIP Cyrille Regis, here photographed in 1978 at West Brom’s ground the Hawthorns

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