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Wednesday 19 December 2018

Obituary: Cyrille Regis

Footballer who won hearts and honours in the face of racist attacks, including getting a bullet in the post

HAWTHORNS HERO: Cyrille Regis, pictured in 1978 in his West Bromwich Albion kit
HAWTHORNS HERO: Cyrille Regis, pictured in 1978 in his West Bromwich Albion kit

Cyrille Regis, the former West Bromwich Albion, Coventry and England footballer, who died last Sunday of a heart attack aged 59, was in the late 1970s among the first black players to rise to prominence in the British game. Subjected to racist abuse then regarded as commonplace, his dignified conduct off the pitch and thrilling performances on it made him a role model not just for younger black footballers but for all those who truly loved the sport.

In 1976, Regis, then 18, was spotted playing non-league football for Hayes by West Brom's chief scout Ronnie Allen. Blessed with great strength and speed over short distances Regis was essentially an instinctive, old-style striker. He was at his most threatening outmuscling defenders to reach a cross or with the ball at his feet and them back-peddling.

Legend had it that Allen was so sure that Regis would make it as a professional that he offered to put up the £10,000 transfer fee if West Brom were unsure about the deal. The club had just finished eighth in the First Division, but Regis proved to have no trouble making the step up, and scored on both his cup and league debuts in the space of a few days.

Allen soon became manager, but shortly after left to coach Saudi Arabia, and it was when Ron Atkinson took over at The Hawthorns that Regis blossomed. This was in part because of the team's entertaining style of play, but also because it consistently fielded three black players: Brendan Batson, Laurie Cunningham and Regis. Nicknamed, somewhat insensitively, The Three Degrees, after the black pop act of the time, the trio attracted both press attention as well as more straightforward discrimination.

National Front members would hand out literature before their matches, the players would be spat at as they came off the coach, and have to endure thousands of supporters chanting monkey noises at them during matches.

When Regis was picked for England, he received a bullet in the post, while Cunningham, who had a white girlfriend, got death threats.

In 1979, West Brom surprisingly challenged Liverpool for the title, until the hard winter led to a fixture pile-up that sapped them.

Regis, however, was voted PFA Young Player of the Year, and in 1982, when his long-distance strike against Norwich was voted Goal of the Season as the club reached two semi-finals, he finished runner-up for the senior award to Kevin Keegan. Johan Cruyff tried to buy him to replace Marco van Basten at Ajax, but the deal fell through.

Between 1982 and 1987 Regis was capped five times by England, although he never played a full match. In fact, after Atkinson had left for Old Trafford, and the mercurial Cunningham for Real Madrid, Regis's form fell away for several years, although his tally of goals for the Baggies eventually reached 112 in 301 matches.

In his memoir, Cyrille Regis: My Story, published in 2010, he confessed to having sought consolation in alcohol and in women other than his first wife, Beverley, whom he had married in 1983 and with whom he had a son and a daughter.

He regretted not having moved from West Brom when at his peak, and struggled after being sold to Coventry in 1984, until John Sillett and George Curtis revived the team and led them famously to victory over Spurs in the 1987 FA Cup Final.

In 1991 Regis re-joined Atkinson at Aston Villa, who finished second in the inaugural Premier League season the year after, before winding up his career at Wolves, Wycombe Wanderers and Chester.

By then, however, following the death of his close friend Cunningham in a car accident, Regis had re-evaluated his priorities and become first and foremost a born-again Christian

Cyrille Regis was born on February 9, 1958 at Maripasoula, in French Guiana. His father Robert, from whom Cyrille inherited his formidable physique, had been a fisherman before turning to panning for gold as a living. He had three children from an earlier marriage before he met Cyrille's mother Mathilde, 18 years his junior, with whom he would have five more.

Cyrille had memories of growing up in a shack where an open ditch acted as the sewer before, aged five, he came to Britain. Money was tight and when the family were evicted from their accommodation Regis and his brother were boarded out for nine months with nuns in Aldershot. Dave Regis later became a professional footballer, too, as did their nephew Jason Roberts, while the sprinter John Regis is a distant cousin.

Raised a Catholic, Cyrille attended Cardinal Hinsley secondary school, Willesden, and after having had to live in a hostel dormitory, the family were eventually rehoused on the Stonebridge estate near Wembley. At school, his chief interest was cricket and he only took up football in his early teens. He left school at 16 and qualified as an electrician. He also took his first steps in the non-league game with Molesey, having been spotted by them playing Sunday football in Regent's Park.

On hanging up his boots in 1996, having scored 158 times in 614 league matches, Regis worked as a coach at West Brom for several years and then in 2000 became a football agent. He was appointed MBE in 2008 for services to the voluntary sector.

His first marriage ended in divorce in 1996 and he is survived by his second wife, Julia, whom he married in 2006, and by his children.

Sunday Independent

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