Cyrille Regis: English Football's Trailblazing Black Hero Who Took on The Racists and Won

The death of former West Brom and England striker Cyrille Regis on Monday (January 15), aged 59, saw the infamous story of his national team call-up told and retold.

Regis, an intensely optimistic man, admitted he was hurt when, before making his England debut, he found a letter addressed to him in the changing room. Inside was a bullet and a message which read: "if you put your foot on our Wembley turf you'll get one of those through your knees."

This story, the trailblazing work of one of England's first black footballers who won five caps for the national team, has been told many times by Regis. It was publicized in The Three Degrees, a 2014 book by Paul Rees on the story of West Brom trio Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson and their role in bringing about social change in English football. And Regis turned to it once again in August 2013 when he was asked to address the England Under-21 team before a friendly against Scotland at Bramall Lane.

"By that point, the squad had more black players than white players," Rees, who spoke at length with Regis, told Newsweek. "He told the contemporary squad the story of how he was sent the bullet in the post and they had no comprehension, and he said he was aware of how much the game had moved on.

"He knew what it had meant, what it had symbolized, and what he and the others had achieved but Cyrille was unfailingly modest about it."

Rees, a music journalist by trade, grew up watching Regis score wonder-goals in the 1970s alongside his father as season-ticket holders in the old Halfords Lane end at The Hawthorns. "I was a white, middle-class kid growing up in the Midlands and I used to go to the park [to play football] wanting to be Cyrille Regis, a black guy. And lots and lots of West Brom fans I know would share that sentiment," Rees recalled. "There was never an issue for me of black and white, he was just a great footballer."

Cyrille Regis
Cyrille Regis at The Matchroom Stadium, London, October 12, 2013. Regis died from a cardiac arrest on Monday (January 15). Charlie Crowhurst/Getty

But the color of Regis' skin was, indeed, a problem for many supporters. Rees' book recalls times when fans would taunt Regis with monkey chants and throw banana skins at him during games.

"One of the points he made to me was that you would go to certain grounds and you'd be surprised if there wasn't chanting," Rees said. "And he'd mention certain grounds where there would be a whole stand of people chanting monkey noises and throwing fruit. But he didn't ever believe that they were all racist. It was a crowd mentality, and he believed that in some cases it was peer pressure and joining in with the crowd."

Racism was something Regis had experienced long before he stepped onto a football pitch. "Because he came to Britain from the Caribbean, he told me he could vividly remember family hunting for digs around London and they had those infamous 'No blacks, no dogs, no Irish' signs around," Rees said.

"Cyrille said to me that, when all this fearful abuse was directed at them, his answer was to go up there and score a goal." And that was exactly what he did, scoring a total of 112 goals in 297 appearances for West Brom before joining Coventry City for £250,000 in 1984. He is remembered fondly for his goalscoring, with a thunderous strike against Norwich City in 1981-82 winning the BBC's Goal of the Season award. An 11-year-old Rees got used to seeing this type of finishing.

"He was the archetypal fantasy footballer," he said. "A six-foot-something black colossus, he scored ridiculous Roy-of-the-Rovers type goals; he didn't score normal goals. One of the first I can remember was him bursting through, against Man City or Everton, passed three or four players and launching the ball in from 25 yards, like a rocket—and he just kept on doing that. He looked like a statute that'd come to life."

Regis, who was appointed an MBE in 2008, retained an involvement in the sport as a player agent after he retired, having also worked as a coach at West Brom.

Rees met Regis in 2013 at the Moat House Hotel in Birmingham, where he and his teammates used to meet after games. They sat and spoke for so long that the author ended up getting a parking ticket, but the experience with his childhood hero was worth it.

"He had a remarkable amount of grace and dignity. He talked about [the abuse] with candour and honesty, but not anger and not bitterness, and not resentment," Rees recalled. "He was very calm and measured. He didn't bang the table, his voice didn't rise. He would talk about it in a very dignified manner, he came out stronger. It emboldened him. Cyrille won at the end of the day. Whatever was thrown at Cyrille, he triumphed over it."