The former footballer Cyrille Regis has died suddenly at the age of 59 after a heart attack.
Cyrille was one of the black players who broke through into the game at the top level in England in the late 70s and early 80’s. They overcame appalling racism which was then, sadly, often regarded by fans and managers alike as just harmless banter, to be brushed off as something “normal” and to be expected.
Cyrille was one of the so-called “Three Degrees” of black players signed by West Bromwich Albion along with the late Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson. They were managed for a time by Ron Atkinson, someone who has had his own issues with racism (albeit not, if what his former charges say is true, with his own black players).
Although it was more vocal and violent in the “terrace wars” between hooligan “firms” (many of whom had links to the far right), those chants and insults were of a piece with racism in society in general. Racism was also common the streets, pubs and workplaces to which black people returned after matches (if indeed they had been brave enough to attend them in the first place). It was also common in the TV comedies of the era, such as ‘Till Death Do Us Part’, with its oft-quoted bigot Alf Garnett, and the awful ‘Love Thy Neighbour’, about a white couple living next door to a black one.
The West Midlands was no exception to this. Immigrants from the Caribbean and Indian sub-continent who had come to work in its foundries and car factories in the 50s and 60s had experienced a racist backlash from the start.
This was epitomised by the notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech of 1968 in which Enoch Powell, Tory MP for Wolverhampton South West, fulminated against their arrival. The decline of those industries in the 70s and 80s led to white working-class frustrations which expressed themselves politically in the electoral rise of the street-fighting fascists of the National Front, which gained more than eight percent of the vote at a 1977 by-election in Powell’s birthplace of Stetchford.
Above all, though, Cyrille Regis should be remembered for his sublime footballing talent.