Thank you – are the most fitting words to begin this column. Thank you Cyrille Regis for opening so many doors for so many people.
As a footballer, Cyrille was a pioneer. He was our black superhero stepping out onto the pitch week in, week out – scoring great goals for the fans, entertaining us with his skill, grafting for his team… Yet, he regularly faced horrific racist abuse but refused to let it stop him cracking on with his job. It was the ultimate act of defiance against racism on the biggest stage. The perfect protest that challenged the ridiculous notion that black people were not worthy of equal treatment – on the football pitch or in society.
He, alongside fellow pioneers including his West Brom team mates Brendon Batson and the late Laurie Cunningham, opened the doors for the uber stars of today. If these men had walked away and not proudly stood against racism you can forget the likes of John Barnes, Ian Wright, Andy Cole and Rio Ferdinand getting a look in – and we would still be feeling that knock on effect today.
One in three footballers across the 92 professional clubs in England is black. Every one of them has benefitted from Cyrille’s stance. The game is also all the better – and wealthier – for the involvement of black players, so he has undeniably touched every part of football.
As a man, Cyrille was a gentleman. He was from the old school. Immaculately turned out at all times, polite, respectful, attentive and humble.
I am so, so pleased we got to show our appreciation for Cyrille at the Football Black List celebration in November last year – where he received the Keith Alexander award for his outstanding contribution to the game and black communities.
As it is such a highly respected award we don’t tend to tell the recipient that they will be receiving it and leave it as a surprise. So up until the announcement was made on the stage he had no idea he was being awarded. As Cyrille walked up onto the stage he received a rousing round of applause and we had our chance to thank him for all he had done. It was a special moment.
I am still struggling to believe that he has passed away as he was a picture of health up on stage that evening. It was the talk of the room… ‘Wow! Cyrille looks like he could still play!!’, one friend remarked. I even went as far as asking Cyrille what his secret was. I can remember his answer as if it were yesterday. He leaned into me, lowered his voice and said, “Weights – do the weights!”, and then offered a knowing smile.
I will never forget Cyrille the pioneer and the man. His strength lives on in everyone touched by his legacy. We now owe it to him to keep pushing on to make football and society better for the generations that follow us.
This column first appeared in The Voice Newspaper