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Monday, 15 January 2018

RIP Cyrille Regis - a legend, a trailblazer and pioneer.

It was a real privilege to play with Cyrille.
He was then, as always, a class act.
I was shocked and deeply saddened to discover that Cyrille Regis, the former West Bromich Albion, Coventry City and England striker, has died at the age of 59.

As a child, Regis was a hero to me. I was not a West Brom supporter - but you didn't need to be to admire his flair, his athleticism and his creativity. At a time when black footballers were few in number and regularly subjected to racist abuse, Cyrille and his team-mates Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson (known as the "Three Degrees") not only produced some of the most attractive attacking football ever seen at the Hawthorns, but were to prove transformative in other ways too.

It may be difficult for many now to fully appreciate how hostile an environment Regis and other black players were entering every time they took to the field at that time. While they would inspire many, they would also become targets for the worst kinds of abuse. As Batson recounted: "We would get off coaches at away matches and the National Front would be there. In those days we didn't have security. We'd get to the players entrance and there would be spit on my jacket or Cyrille's shirt. We coped. It wasn't a new phenomenon." Playing at some league grounds was notoriously tough for black players, with ferocious crowds booing every touch of the ball and shouting racist slogans. The trio also received death threats.

But, whether consciously or otherwise, Regis and his friends resisted. And the more they did, the more they inspired more black people to participate in sport. Attitudes didn't change immediately, and one of the short-term effects of the Three Degrees was that they become the focus for a particularly vitriolic form of racism. But they endured, and in doing so helped create a culture in which such racism would no longer be tolerated. Whenever I see "Kick racism out of football" adverts, I can't help but think of Cyrille.

As I mentioned, Cyrille was a hero to me as a child. This was, inevitably, party connected with the great entertainer he was on the football pitch. There can be no doubt about the fact he was one of the greatest players ever to grace The Hawthorns or Highfield Road. He was undoubtedly a football genius, but he was so much more than that. Even as someone aged about 7 or 8, I subconsciously recognised that to be accepted as a black player back in the early 80s you had to be exceptionally gifted, and I had some idea of the unfair treatment people like him had to experience. It's hard not to admire someone you know is standing up to injustice, but in such a way as to let his sporting ability to all the talking.

I played with Cyrille in a charity/legends match in 2007. It's not everyone who gets the opportunity to spend 90 minutes on a football pitch with a childhood idol, of course - but what says more about the man is what happened afterwards. After a conversation about our various charitable efforts, he agreed to help support one of my causes through his association with Christians in Sport. We also discussed how we could work together to use football to provide opportunities to underprivileged young people. Challenging racism also, somewhat inevitably, came into the conversations - and I went away feeling that Cyrille was the kind of person who would just want to help in any way he could. That was his nature.

He also did a lot of work for Water Aid and similar charities, and if it is possible to sum the man up in a sentence it would be this: "a humanitarian who changed the way we look at the world". There can be no greater tribute. That he happened to be an immensely gifted footballer allowed him to have the huge impact on challenging the shameful prejudice and abuse that the likes of the FA and the BBC preferred to overlook (the latter famously claimed it was impossible to make out what was being shouted from the terraces). He was a real pioneer - both on the pitch and off it, and committed his life to improving opportunities for others.

I can't count Cyrille among my friends and it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise, but I am very proud to have had the opportunity to play with him and to have been involved in some projects that made a positive contribution to empowering others. What I know is that, at a time when racism again is rearing its head and needing people to directly challenge it, we need to remember Cyrille's example. The world is a poorer place for his passing.

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