25 January 2018

There have been many things written and said about Cyrille Regis since his untimely death was announced on Monday, but one comment stuck with me. It came from local MEP Siôn Simon who said “Lots of footballers are good, but very few are important. Cyrille Regis was both.”

It struck a chord with me because it seemed a small island of genuine insight in the vast sea of mawkish, self-serving sentimentality that I have found myself wading through. It is perhaps unfair to quote solely from Stephen Jones’ piece in the Birmingham Mail as it was by no means unique in this regard. But it was indicative of the kind of comment that I found myself bridling at. Jones wrote: “I was too young to understand racial divides – it never occurred to me once that he [Regis] was either black or white… To me he was just the best player on the pitch.”

Hmmm… this is typical of certain kind of historical revisionism that (predominantly white) people have engaged in when assessing ‘Big Cyrille’s’ legacy. It suggests that racism was something ‘over there’ that was happening amongst other, less enlightened, people. It wasn’t ‘us’ who was racist; it was ‘them’ – older people, opposition fans, opposing players; whoever. But not us at any rate; and certainly not me.

With the greatest respect to Mr Jones, that is not my recollection of the 1970s and 80s at all.

It’s time for a confession. In the 1970s I was young white working class boy growing up in Handsworth, Birmingham, about a mile and a half from the Albion ground. At that time Handsworth was undergoing significant change as large numbers of immigrants from the Caribbean and south Asia moved into the area. I started watching West Brom games on TV in 1978 when I was nine years old, and I started attending matches at The Hawthorns in 1982. During that period economic challenges meant that factories began to close or lay people off, and unemployment began to rise. The notion that immigrants were simply being brought in to do the jobs that “we” didn’t want to do became unsustainable – now immigrants were competing directly with the white population for the few jobs that were available.

And many of us resented that. We were fearful of what was happening to our community and we were worried about our future economic welfare. Society seemed to falling apart, and all the old markers of white working class identity began to be stripped away. That was the prism through which we viewed the world. So the reality was that when not one, but three black players started turning up for our team every week many of us emphatically did see their colour – and we were fearful of it. Maybe Stephen Jones and his ilk genuinely were better people than me, but my recollection of white people’s reaction to the increasing prevalence of non-white faces is absolutely crystal clear – and it was not positive. Whilst I never hurled racist abuse at any players or threw bananas on the pitch, let’s not pretend that I was as colour-blind as Mr Jones et al claim they were. But to be honest I don’t recall anyone else being that colour-blind either. My recollection is that for white Albion fans (which was 99% of us in those days) black players were it was, at best, ‘problematic’.

So I do not recall the racist abuse of the 1970s and 80s with the kind of bemused bewilderment that many journalists seem to. The idea that ‘all right-thinking people’ viewed it as an abhorrence simply does not chime with my memory. The middle classes may have viewed it as distasteful and coarse, but we all understood why it was happening. It was their own fault. They were taking our jobs and our housing and now they were taking over our football teams. What did they expect?

So racism was not something ‘over there’, being carried out by other, less enlightened people. It was us. We were the racists. I was not the solution – I was emphatically part of the problem.

But then there was Cyrille.

Cyrille was simply incredible. He scored the first goal I ever saw scored ‘live’ at The Hawthorns (versus Coventry City in the 1982 FA Cup fifth round) and he scored probably the greatest goal any Albion player has ever scored (versus Manchester United on Boxing Day 1978 in an incredible 5-3 win). All in all there were 112 of them and, as Ron Atkinson has commented, very few of them were tap-ins. Those goals took us to a third place finish in the league, two FA Cup semi-finals and a UEFA Cup quarter final. Gradually this brought something home to me.

It is probably not unfair to say that as a child and teenager I wanted nothing more than I wanted West Brom to win. And I recognised that Cyrille’s presence in our team was one of the most effective ways of achieving that objective. Fortunately, Cyrille was every bit as dedicated to that goal as I was. His goals would sometimes blow teams away (there was a memorable brace in a 7-1 drubbing of Coventry City) and sometimes get us out of hole (I remember him and Garry Thompson scoring three goals in the last six minutes to secure a 3-1 ‘comeback’ win against local rivals, Aston Villa). So whatever differences in life and outlook we may have had, I began to realise that what united us was greater than what divided us. And so he became my hero. Our common desire to see West Brom win proved stronger than our differences in skin colour and culture.

Many commentators have noted that Cyrille’s goals changed games. So what? As Siôn Simon observed, lots of players are good. But Cyrille’s manner, his demeanour, the way he dedicated himself to helping Albion win despite the fact that his own fans would frequently abuse him just as much as those of the opposition – well, although everyone seems remarkably reluctant to admit it, I believe that changed the hearts of many people.

So yes, Cyrille was undoubtedly good. But he was, equally undoubtedly, important because he helped to turn back the tide of racism that was surging forward in the late 1970s. There are plenty of footballers who can change football matches. Very few can change society. Cyrille Regis should not be remembered just because “he was the best player on the pitch.” He should also be remembered because he changed people.

He changed me.

May he rest in peace.

Alan Fraser is chief executive of YMCA Birmingham.