'We stood on his shoulders' said a tearful Dion Dublin in tribute to the way too soon passing of Cyrille Regis. Blades and Leeds United legend Brian Deane broke down as he remembered the vicious racist booing that Cyrille and his contemporary black pioneers had to contend with. The shock and grief felt by his fellow black professionals and those that followed in his footsteps is a reflection of the sincere debt they feel for the man, a genuine hero who faced up to the racists.
As a thirty odd year old white Blades fan in the late seventies I never had the privilege to see him in his pomp at West Brom as my team hurtled down the divisions, but Cyrille, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson regularly lit up our TV screens. It seems unbelievable now that there was an almost total absence of reference by the TV commentators to the ugly racist abuse that tumbled down the terraces towards the growing number of black players. With the notable exceptions of Barry Davies and Gerald Sinstadt the cowardice and indifference shown by their silence stands in stark contrast with the bravery of Cyrille Regis, a man whose reward for being selected to play for England was a bullet in the post.
It was not until 1993 that the PFA and CRE set up what would later became Kick It Out - even longer before the FA showed any interest - and for these 15 plus years the black players were virtually alone, save for support from some of their teammates and a growing number of fans who began to stand up to the racists on the terraces. It helped if there were black players in your team and the Blades - eventually - had Brian Deane and Tony Agana. Deano in particular became a Sheffield United cult hero and his presence made it so much easier to isolate the racists and as Brendon Batson has observed, 'turn down the volume
I had the privilege to meet Cyrille a few times and shared a memorable hour in August 2013 at St Georges Park when Cyrille and Garth Crooks addressed the England U21 squad about their experiences of racism in the 70s and 80s. Their audience included Kane, Sterling, Lingard, Stones and Barkley: the FA had dedicated the U21 game with Scotland at Bramall Lane in honour of Laurie Cunningham, who had become the first black player to represent England at U21 level at the same venue in April 1977.
Last year I found myself sat next to the Big Man at the PFA Awards Dinner. We agreed to work on a comic book telling his story in the FURD Pioneers series, which I was thrilled to do, and it is tragic he will not be around to read it. Cyrille and his fellow black pioneers were beacons of strength and sheer guts to all of us, regardless of ethnicity, who opposed racism in football and the wider society, at a time when government and the authorities turned a blind eye. Rest in peace, Big Man, you made the world a better place.
Football Unites, Racism Divides