On Sunday 14th January former West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa and Coventry City Legend Cyrille Regis died suddenly of a heart attack. Up until almost a week after his sudden death, the Premiere League had not organised a widespread tribute for him. Later that day, it was announced that Cyrille would be honoured at all top flight matches after a re-think from the Premier League.
This rethink was prompted by a public outcry. Cyrille’s death came as a huge shock to his tens of thousands of fans, friends and admirers, and there was serious hurt, offends and upset caused by the football authorities’ failure to arrange a fitting tribute for Cyrille.
I was at his funeral yesterday reflecting on Cyrille’s life and achievements when it hit me just how much of an insult that is to Cyrille’s memory and how much he contributed not just to Britain’s most popular sport but to the face of diversity in Britain.
Cyrille Regis won five caps for England, known for his “Three Degrees” days at West Bromwich and for winning the FA Cup with Coventry in 1987. As I’ve been saying all week and many agree, Cyrille was more than a football player. He was a true Diversity Champion who changed attitudes in football culture and in the country.
Like all great men, the changes Cyrille created came at a cost. Brian Reade recalls sickening racism watching ‘The Three Degrees’ play, “As they came into view a torrent of monkey grunts, chants of “get back on your jam jar” and a variation of n-word insults would pollute the air. It was utterly toxic.” What’s key is that Brian remembers clearly the impact of Regis’s resilience saying “he stood up to this ritual de-humanisation with courage, dignity and brilliance”. A few years back Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson and Cyrille Regis were honoured with a statue. The ‘celebration statue’, which depicts Cyrille Regis with Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson, has been delayed for several years due to financial problems. It was originally due to be unveiled on July 15, 2014, to mark the 25th anniversary of Cunningham’s death. It is still sat on a foundry floor in London. Yet again, we are left fighting for the recognition our pioneers so deserve.
Before last weeks outcry, the only plans were for armbands and a minute’s applause before West Bromwich’s game at Everton, and an applause before Villa’s game against Barnsley and Coventry’s against Swindon. I cannot understand why when it comes to our greats, we have to push for the recognition they deserve.
Last year Cyrille wrote an article for the Daily Mail and he spoke out on the lack of recognition Laurie Cunningham received saying: ‘For years, Cunningham’s contribution seemed destined to be forgotten. His death in 1989, front-page news in his adopted Spain, was much lower down the agenda in the country of his birth. Only since the acclaimed documentary First Among Equals was made by ITV in 2013 has there been a broader recognition of his achievements within modern society.’ It saddens me to be sat here writing the same about Cyrille.
A few years ago, the Rooney Rule was developed. It required teams to interview at least one black or minority ethnic candidate for a head coach vacancy which led Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho to say “There is no racism in football.”
In reply, BBC Sport commentator Jason Roberts tweeted: “Mourinho - ‘there is no racism in football’ - there is only one reaction to this. It’s an old one, but hahahahahahahahahahahahaha.”
Over the years there has been campaigns or headlines saying that MP’s are going to investigate racism in football. Yet Les Ferdinand is the only black Director of Football and there are only three black managers in the 92 first team jobs.
As someone who has been involved in the football industry for decades, I have witnessed the deep racism in football firsthand. As the ex-partner of a footballer, I remember all too well how it felt to be one of four black ‘Wags’ of black First Division (as it was known then) footballers. At Cyrille’s funeral I was deeply moved by the public outpouring of people from all cultures, religions, ages and gender; I just hope that this spirit continues on.
In April 2016, footballer Eni Aluko quit the national team after she was bullied by coaching staff. The England ace said she had to quit the national set-up in because of the behaviour of the “belittling and harassing” coach Mark Sampson.
’As a black female in the team, understanding the unfavourable, racial and social connotations underlying MS’s comment further heightened my feelings of fear and isolation, especially in light of the previous instances where I have been negatively singled out, too.”
Despite several major campaigns including #SheBelongs, sexism is still a major issue in football. Kick It Out is another brilliantly designed campaign but whenever I see a footballer like John Terry (who said the words “f*****g black ****” to Anton Ferdinand) wearing a ‘let’s kick racism out of football’ t-shirt I wonder if its a talking shop? Where’s the real, grassroots action? The hardest thing to change is culture. The work Cyrille did to change culture made a big difference but we have to take the baton.
So many of us living in modern Britain stand on the shoulders of Cyrille Regis. It’s so important that his legacy is honoured. Not just this week because it’s in the headlines; but in all of our conversations about heroes.
I’m so proud that we all stood up and demanded that Cyrille receives the recognition he deserved. I just look forward to a day when we don’t have to.