The ugly issue of racism in football has raised its ugly head again this year.
Liverpool striker Luiz Suarez received an eight-game ban for racially abusing Man Utd defender Patrice Evra, and Chelsea Skipper John Terry’s faced criticism for allegedly racially abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand last year.
Former England International Cyrille Regis is interviewed during the Grass Roots Football Live Launch Event in 2012
One man who ran the gauntlet of racist abuse and jibes during the 70’s and 80’s when racism was at its height in British football grounds, is former West Brom, Coventry City and England striker Cyrille Regis.
Known as the “Big C” and “Smoking Joe”, Regis was one of the key figures in the fight against the scourge of racism in the 70’s and 80’s.
Born in French Guiana, Regis moved as a young child to England with his family, settling in London. He soon became aware of the deep rooted racism there when he saw signs in properties to let with the words- “No Blacks, no dogs, no Irish”.
He said: “You wouldn’t have thought that sort of thing would have been allowed as recently as the 60’s. I was only five and didn’t really understand it. But when I looked up at my Mum and my Dad and saw the hurt in their eyes, I knew something was wrong.”
One of the first black players to leave his mark on English football, along with Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson and Viv Anderson, the powerful striker lived with vile abuse week in- week out.
He added: “It was on a completely different level when I found myself playing for West Brom. My first away game was at Newcastle and Laurie Cunningham and I both scored in a 3-1 win. You could almost hear people thinking, ‘Where have they come from?’
“It was a constant noise, booing and monkey chants rather than individual shouts of abuse, but it soon became the norm.”
But he used his prowess on the field to take the bigots on, carving out a successful career at West Brom where he netted 82 times in 237 times, becoming a fans favorite and being voted one of West Brom’s 16 greatest ever players in a 2004 poll.
Coventry City's Cyrille Regis in a mid air battle with West Ham Skipper Alvin Martin in 1986
After seven years at Albion he moved across the Midlands to Coventry, where he picked up an FA Cup winners medal in 87’, and although his spell at Highfield road was less successful goal wise (he scored 47 times in 238 appearances) he impressed with his ability in the air and his ability to lead the line.
Spells at Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Wycombe Wanderers, and Chester City followed before Regis hung up his boots at 38 in 1996.
He also picked up 5 caps for England, making his debut in 1982 in a 4-0 win over Northern Ireland at Wembley, becoming the third black player to play for England.
But it was on the eve of his debut that he faced perhaps the darkest moment of his career.
Opening what he thought was some fanmail, he received a chilling letter threatening to put something through his knees if he pulled on an England shirt. Looking more into the envelope, he found a bullet wrapped up cotton wool.
But rather than sending Regis into his shell, this served as further motivation to beat the bigots.
He said: “I’ve still got it to this day. The letter soon got binned, but I kept the bullet as a reminder of the force of anger and evil some people had inside them back then.
“For the rest of my playing days, it was also a motivation, a reminder that those people were not going to stop me. I’d already had years of monkey noises and chants of ‘n****r, n****r, lick my boots’- a truly odious taunt loaded with overtones of colonialist supremacy, slavery and subservience- so I wasn’t particularly shocked and certainly wasn’t scared”.
But one incident which shook Regis to the core and which was to change the course of his life was a near fatal car accident in 1989, which killed his close friend and ex-team mate Laurie Cunningham.
Having survived another car crash two years before with Cunningham, Regis began some serious soul searching: “What hit me like a sledgehammer is that my friend, whose life was very parallel to mine, he died in a car crash and he left everything behind.
“…To me it was a massive question – wow if I had died I’d have left everything behind, so what’s the most important thing to Cyrille Regis? What can I take? It was through those questions in my heart and my mind that I needed answers.
“Coming from a Catholic background I knew about God and my natural sense was to seek and ask was there a God and to try and find those answers.”
A long chat with a local pastor helped him understand God’s unconditional love for him by Jesus dying on the cross for him, and he accepted Christ into his life.
His questions answered and his soul at peace, Regis’ life was turned around. Gone was the womanizing and the partying that had destroyed his first marriage, Regis found love with second wife Julia- also a Christian.
Now a successful football agent, the 54 year-old describes his faith as “the foundation of my life” and says he is “energized” by bible study and prayer.
Awarded an MBE in 2008, his story truly is an inspirational one.
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”- an apt verse for a remarkable man.
August 17th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Hefin Rhys Jones