As a professional footballer, you might imagine that Cyrille Regis would have wanted to be best remembered as a prolific and whole-hearted centre-forward, who scored some truly memorable goals. West Bromwich Albion fans of this or future generations would be fortunate indeed if they were to witness any striker come close to the standards that Cyrille set at The Hawthorns, as would followers of Coventry City, Aston Villa or Wolves.
Outside of the Midlands, you might imagine that Cyrille would have been most proud of his five full England caps and the fact that he was only the third black player – after Viv Anderson and his great friend Laurie Cunningham – to represent his country at the highest level.
Beyond his working-class roots in French Guiana, you might think that being awarded an MBE for his public contribution to English society would have been the ultimate accolade for this honest, generous man.
I suspect, though, that you would be wrong on all counts.
I would guess that Cyrille would want to be remembered as a fighter; an ordinary man who refused to bend to, or buckle under the strain of, that same society’s prejudices, and achieve something remarkable that individuals like him were never expected to do.
Sport is supposed to be all about inclusivity and football perhaps our ‘national’ example of it. Sport can only become truly inclusive, though, when society's prejudices are comprehensively addressed. It’s difficult today to imagine women not playing football isn’t it? Similarly, a British Olympic team today without black athletes would, thankfully, be unthinkable.
Of course, it wasn’t always like that. English football has its roots firmly placed in the public-school system of the eighteenth century. The original ‘Rules of football’ were subsequently assembled at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1846.
Even after the Football Association (FA) endorsed ‘professionalism’ from 1885, under ‘certain restrictions’, society’s determination to treat women differently to men was all too apparent.
A group of working-class women joined the Dick, Kerr & Co armaments factory in Preston, Lancashire to help produce ammunition for the First World War effort. They were persuaded to take up sport to boost morale and formed a works football team which played (and usually beat) other workers – mostly men – in lunch and tea breaks. Becoming known as Dick, Kerr’s Ladies F.C. they quickly became the most successful women’s team of the period, playing a series of charity matches around the country to raise money for injured servicemen during and after the war.
However, women’s football was frowned upon by The FA who eventually banned it in 1921 from being played on their members’ grounds as it was viewed as “distasteful” and “ought not to be encouraged.” The ban stood for 50 years and was only lifted in 1971.
Article Published: 30th January 2018
Later in that same decade — in 1977 — Cyrille made his debut for West Bromwich Albion, having fought his way out of non-league football and refusing to believe that a career as a professional footballer had already passed him by.
No Wikipedia entry or football reports from that period can really convey, though, what it was like to be black in Britain — especially when exposed to the masses of working-class men and women who could now play football in parks, playgrounds and housing estates, up and down the country; and could also vote.
The decade was marked by industrial strife, terrorist violence across mainland Britain and financial hardship for many. Discontent did not just show itself over one winter. These were hard times, accompanied by hard, unforgiving people, many of whom saw immigration only as a threat and not, as in the case of Cyrille’s family, an opportunity. Tragically, some would never forgive Cyrille the original sin of being different to them.
Terraces were often over-crowded, and football fans were herded in and out of grounds like voiceless cattle. Violence – or the simmering threat of it – was commonplace. The creaking stands and cracked concrete of the terraces. often shrouded in a fog of cigarette smoke, were football’s platforms in those days; no surprise that all of this gave rise to the terrible football tragedies of the following decade – including in Birmingham.
I remember the National Front groups outside of football grounds, selling racist hate by the pamphlet load, at this time. Mounted policemen would view black or Asian spectators suspiciously from on high, while jeers, monkey chants and bunches of bananas would greet Cyrille and those few who were brave enough at the time to carry on and do their best to entertain the majority, rather than yield to the ignorance of the minority.
A player we might already know will be the next Cyrille, or Laurie, or Viv. Players who admit that they are gay will face the wrath of crowds for being different. Have we really moved on from the treatment meted out to Justin Fashanu – including from one of the most revered football managers of all time? Hopefully, we won’t be looking back almost forty years before this too becomes ‘normalised’, and homophobic division is as reviled as institutional sexism or racism now is.
So, for young footballers struggling to move up from football’s lower reaches, whether they be black, female or gay, Cyrille’s professional career should always be held up as an inspiration that while being good enough is no guarantee of success, if you are good enough within and strong enough without, then you have every chance of scoring life’s highest goals, even if society itself has to run to try and catch you up.
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