“Cyrille, get home. You’re starting tonight,” came the call from West Bromwich Albion manager Ronnie Allen.
Cyrille Regis, then only 19, was making his West Brom debut against Division Three side Rotherham United in the League Cup. It’s been 40 years since that day but he still remembers the feeling in the dressing room before the game. “I’m walking in there, seeing everybody cool and comfortable. I’m from London, and you’re fronting it, you put on a show, but deep down in your heart and mind you’re pooping yourself really.”
If not for a few major life-changing events, Regis might never have been a footballer, lived in England or even have been called Cyrille. It started when he was barely a day old. His family lived in a tiny rural town called Maripasoula in French Guiana, where his father, Robert, prospected for gold. After Regis was born, his father asked a friend who was traveling to the capital Cayenne, a two-day trek from Maripasoula, to register Cyrille’s birth. When his father’s friend arrived in Cayenne he forgot the full name, Gilbert Cyrille Regis, only remembering Cyrille.
In 1963, at the age of five, Cyrille, his mother and his brother took a three-week journey by ship from French Guiana to join his father in London. His two sisters moved over a year later. They all lived in a one-room apartment on Portobello road in West London. “That Christmas of 1963 was freezing,” says Regis. “I still remember it now, as a five-year-old coming from the Caribbean to two-to-three feet of snow was tough. I think it was tougher for my mum and dad.”
Housing was the hardest issue for young Cyrille and the Regis family. “It wasn’t so welcoming. In London you’d see signs, ‘No black, No Irish, No dogs’.” At one point the family had to split up around the city. Regis had to live with one of his brothers in a convent in Aldershot for nearly a year. In his autobiography, My Story, Cyrille credits this time with helping him handle racism. “I also had to learn to control my feelings. I couldn’t let [my brother] see that I was upset. If I lost my temper he would too.”
Eventually the family reunited, living again in a small house with an outdoor toilet and no bath. His father, a labourer, worked two jobs and gave Cyrille a motto to live by: “Get a trade.” He didn’t want Cyrille to be a labourer and struggle to find jobs like he did. So upon finishing his school exams, Cyrille reinvented himself as an aspiring electrician. He quit school and began an apprenticeship. “From there, looking back, my dad saw me as a man.”
All the while he maintained his love of football by playing Sunday league. At 18, Regis and his friends were playing a match in Regents Park when John Sullivan, the owner, director and manager of semi-professional club Mosley, sent a man and his dog to look for new players. Regis and two of his teammates went to Mosley. When Regis was supposed to line up against Mitcham, a notable non-league side at the time, Sullivan’s number-two told him: “You can’t play an 18-year-old in front of men,” to which the manager replied: “No, no, he’ll be alright.”
Sullivan was right. Regis’ performances led to him signing a £5-per-week contract, which was a reasonable income when combined with the £20 he got as an apprentice electrician. But his football career could have ended before it started. “If my firm at the time wasn’t accommodating it couldn’t happen. On a Tuesday and Thursday I had to leave work at two or three in the afternoon. John used to pick me up in his Pontiac Firebird, race down to Mosley, play a game of football, come back to the clubhouse, have an obligatory couple pints, get home at one or two in the morning and get up at 6am, to go across London to do an eight-hour shift at the building site.”
After moving to Hayes, where ex-pros Bobby Wiles and Alan Carrington took him under their wing, Regis was eventually spotted by Ronnie Allen, the chief scout at West Brom. But it was only after completing his electrician’s qualification that he left London.
Now he was truly a professional footballer – and a professional electrician. In the summer, Allen replaced West Brom manager John Giles. After just a handful of reserve team games, a flurry of injuries to the team’s strikers saw Regis handed his first start against Rotherham.
Regis remembers it being a rough first half. He spurned a number of chances, but West Brom were still winning 2-0. In the second half, the Baggies won a penalty. Tony Brown, the usual taker, was out injured. “For a reason I’ve never known why, Willie [Johnston] picks up the ball and the crowd starts singing Cyrille! Cyrille!” Regis had never taken penalties before for any of his clubs, but despite his nerves and inexperience, he took the ball and scored. He added a second goal and then started in the First Division against Middlesbrough on Saturday. Regis soon became a fan-favourite as West Brom finished higher than expected in sixth.
In the summer West Brom signed Cambridge United full-back Brendon Batson. Batson, like Regis and Laurie Cunningham, was black. It was the first time three black players had started regularly for any club in England, and, in fact, there was only one other black player in the First Division that year, Viv Anderson at Nottingham Forest. The Three Degrees, as the Baggies trio were called after the 70’s American pop group, received a lot of racist taunts on the pitch.
“In your head it made you angry,” says Regis. “I mean calling you n****r, throwing bananas. I had a bullet in the post in 1980-81. All these 10,000 opposition fans calling you n****r and you black so and so, look into your eyes with that venom and anger. And it made you angry. But we chose to internalise the anger and use it as motivation.”
Most of the racism directed at Regis came during games and stayed on the field. “You realise that you have armoury. Your armoury is your talent and a very good side. The more you shout at me, the more I get angrier, the better I play. Come give it to me.”
The 1978-79 West Brom team finished third in the league and made it to the UEFA Cup quarter-final. Their success helped cement the acceptance of black players in the league.
It was in this jubilant period that Regis met his future wife Beverley. But West Brom’s fortunes began to change as Cunningham left for Real Madrid that summer and was followed out the door by a number of his teammates over the coming years.
After his best ever season in 1981, Regis struggled with injuries in 1982-83. He recalls these as his ‘wilderness years’. In 1984, he moved to Coventry City for £250,000, where he played seven years and won the only major trophy of his career in the 1987 FA Cup. Despite his career climaxing with the FA Cup victory, his memories of that summer would be tinged with sadness and a sense of foreboding.
On July 15th, 1989, his ex-teammate and best friend, Cunningham, died in a car crash. Every summer after Cunningham was transferred to Real Madrid they would vacation together in Ibiza, Madrid or England. The Wednesday before the accident they had been on the phone discussing their summer plans, and on Friday, when Regis heard the news, he was instantly taken back to the summer of 1987.
Just two years before Cunningham’s death he and Regis had been in a car crash in Madrid. They had been out shopping, which led to a few drinks, and then a trip to a nightclub. “Laurie was driving,” Regis recalls. “Laurie’s asleep at the wheel or whatever happened and the car hits a side barrier and the car rolls over three, four times and skids on its roof. For whatever reason we had our seat belts on, and we pushed the car the right way up and got a lift home.
“You just think, I was lucky to escape, and then you move on with your life. But when Laurie died two years later, it was like woah, my best friend had died. There were so many questions now in my heart. One of the biggest thing was Laurie’s life was parallel to mine: wealth, money, adulation, houses, cars. But when Laurie died he left everything behind. It hit me like a sledgehammer. All these things I thought were important, he left it all behind.”
Regis had to find answers to his questions. He had grown up a Catholic and had always attended church as a child. And so it was that Regis started going back to church to seek answers. A man from the local congregation came to his house and they spoke for hours. It was then that Regis committed himself to God. But that weekend he played for Coventry and scored. He celebrated at a nightclub and spent the night with a woman. “Come Wednesday I was nearly in tears,” he says of the guilt.
He then started to read A New Dimension by Michael Greene. “As I was reading this book I just felt a sense of peace that says, everything’s going to be okay. And from that day onwards I lived my life as a Christian,” said Regis.
He knew what the press was like and was worried how they would portray his new identity as a born-again Christian. At this point Regis was playing for Aston Villa. After a game, one of Regis’ friends in the press said, “Cyrille, you’re playing like a 21-year-old again, what’s happening?” It was in this moment Regis chose to come out as a born-again Christian to the public. His career at Aston Villa was a mini-renaissance following his spiritual rebirth.
Following retirement and a stint as a reserve coach, Regis took a stab at being an agent. He had always mentored his nephew and professional footballer, Jason Roberts, who also started at Hayes. He helped him secure trials at numerous clubs and arrange a deal at Wolverhampton, and still works at the international agency, Stellar Group.
“The aspect that grabs me is giving these young boys my experience of what it is to be a pro footballer. Not this rose tinted glasses view which they have, but saying ‘listen, this is what football’s really about. This is the mindset you need. This is the lifestyle you need. This is the attitude you need. Have you got the tools to do this?’ The best part is the mentoring.”
There is a calmness that radiates from Cyrille during our conversation. He has lived through poverty, racism, partying, a broken marriage, car accidents, and, now at peace with himself, he is ready to pass on his lessons to the next generation.
You can listen to more of Josh’s chat with Cyrille here: