From a young age, my dream was always to be a footballer. I nostalgically remember myself as a youngster, playing on the streets, imagining myself as John Barnes, going on a mazy dribble, breezing past multiple defenders, before scoring a magical goal; similar to the one he scored against Brazil in 1984 at the famous Maracanã Stadium.
I wouldn’t go on to become a professional footballer, but at the time being able to identify with black players was important, as it gave young boys as I was, inspiration, self-belief, and drive to know that anything is possible, regardless of skin colour.
Players like Barnes and many other British African-Caribbean players endured a torrent of racial abuse during their careers, but still managed to consistently exhibit their genius in the face of their racial abusers, and were highly regarded, adored and worshiped by true football fans of all races.
In England during the seventies, three players in particular helped break the mold during a period when black players were a minority in the English game. Known as the ‘Three Degrees’, Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson were a renowned trio within the West Bromwich Albion team. Thanks to their popularity and immense ability, they started a trend which would eventually see more black players introduced through the ranks, to play at the highest level.
Fast-forward to the present, and the racial tension in English football has not completely been eradicated, but it has definitely eased. However, certain parts of the world still seem to have evolved a lot slower, with black players having to walk off the pitch, mid-game in protest against racist chants.
As part of the Black and British season, the BBC will air a one-off documentary, Whites Vs Blacks: How Football Changed a Nation. Which focuses on the football match that took place, May 16th 1979, between an all-white team against a team of entirely black players, for Len Cantello’s testimonial at West Bromwich Albion.
I spoke to football legend Cyrille Regis, who played in that infamous match, to get an insight on his time as a player, during a racially hostile period in English football, and his thoughts on the current state of the game.
Hi Cyrille, let me just say that it is an honour to be speaking to you; yourself along with John Barnes are football heroes of mine…
Thank you, John Barnes was an excellent player, great left peg, he comes from my side of London and broke through playing with Luther Blissett at Watford. Also, Luther’s school was Willesden High and mine was Cardinal Hinsley, which was half a mile up the road, so we used to play against each other, back in the day.
Tell us a little bit about how you started your professional football career?
Well, I left school at 16 and got a job as an apprentice electrician. I then started to play Sunday league football for Ryder Brent Valley, and played in the Regent’s Park league. I was spotted by a man called John Sullivan, who was the manager of Moseley football club; and he gave me £5 a week to play semi pro. Then I moved to Hayes in Middlesex in the Isthmian league where I was paid £13 a week as a semiprofessional. In those 3 years, I passed my exams as a fully qualified electrician. In 1977, Ronnie Allen, who was the chief scout at West Brom, and Johnny Giles, who was the manager, bought me for a combined fee of £10,000.
You were the third black player to be capped by England after Viv Anderson and Laurie Cunningham. During that time, what did you think about the England set up, particularly with there being so few black players initially on the team?
At the time, don’t forget, there wasn’t a lot of black players to choose from, so it was a landmark that Laurie Cunningham played for the under 21s in 1978. He was the first black player to play for England. A year later Viv Anderson, the right back, got his first cap, and then I was the third one; myself and Ricky Hill and a few others. So we were seeing a trend of black players playing for England, and for us it was a proud moment.
You’re in the BBC documentary Whites Vs Blacks: How Football Changed a Nation, tell us about that infamous match you were involved in?
Well Len Cantello had been at the club for 10 years and was having a testimonial game, because back then if you stayed at a club for that long, a testimonial committee would organise a match where fans would come, and the player would receive all the money. So because John Osborne, the year before, also had a testimonial, we thought of how we could do something little different. Someone came up with the idea to have a white team vs the black team, so we got a team together and we had the game.
Obviously nowadays people would be in an uproar if such a game took place, but how did you feel during the time?
I never felt uneasy being a part of this game, as I thought it was just a way to attract more fans to watch it and ultimately make more money for Len. Also back then there were no issues about that because, four or five years before, you could hardly get a black team out. So in 1977, 1978 and 1979, to even get a black team out, showed progress for black players during this period.
It’s well documented that you played during a time when racism was rife in English football, what were your personal experiences as a player being exposed to this?
Lots of us, especially three of us, Myself, Laurie Cunningham and Viv Anderson, went through a torrent of racial abuse. In fact, every black player in the late seventies, early eighties experienced it. There were monkey chants, with people throwing bananas on the pitch, being called Kunta Kinte, racist letters in the post. While playing against teams such as Millwall, Chelsea, Birmingham, Newcastle, and Leeds, we also got a lot of abuse. However, the worst for me personally, was when I got my first England call up in 1981, I received a letter in the post saying that, if I put my foot on the Wembley turf, you will get one of these through your knees, which was a bullet.
Do you think there has been enough support to eradicate racism in football around the world, especially with high profile players, such as Yaya Toure threatening to boycott matches, like for instance the 2018 World Cup in Russia?
Until Kick It Out was established in 1993, the FA never had an organisation to fight against racism and discrimination, so for many years we had to endure a lot of horrific stuff. Before Kick it Out, the Stewards were asked by the football leagues to remove any racist fans, but how do you remove 6000 people shouting abuse. Even the papers at the time, referred to players as black diamonds or coloured players, so nothing was done, until Lord Herman Ouseley the chair and chief executive of the Commission for Racial Equality, setup along with the PFA; Let’s Kick It Out in 1993. That campaign was based on education, highlighting that racism is wrong. In the case of today’s players boycotting against racism, it’s right and proper, and 100%, should be done, but Russia is a totally different thing. The UK had a proliferation of black people coming into the country in the 50s and 60s, so are much further down the line than eastern European countries, in terms of race relations. However, in recent times, black personalities like Stan Collymore have still been on the end of racial abuse, anonymously through social media, including my nephew, Jason Roberts which is obviously unacceptable.
The Sports People’s Think Tank compiled data stating that only 20 senior coach positions, are held by people with black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, out of 493 senior roles. Which is disgraceful, particularly with the number of great players, why do you think this is?
I don’t know, but they have tried to do things like the Rooney Rule. However, my personal opinion is football is like other parts of society. Where in institutions like the NHS, the Police and big corporate businesses, you just don’t get a lot of black people in management, it just doesn’t happen, and football is just the same. For instance, if you look at the administration in football clubs, not just the manager and the coaches, but behind the scenes, you don’t see a lot of black people working in those areas.
Whites vs Blacks: How Football Changed a Nation will air on BBC Two, Sunday 27th November 2016 at 9pm.
You will be able to catch it on BBC iPlayer straight after air.