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Garth Crooks pays tribute to his great friend Cyrille Regis

PALS: Garth Crooks and Cyrille Regis (right)

GOODBYE MY friend. It was 6:30am when I heard my phone click notifying me that I had a message. It read: sad sad news guys….Big Cyrille died of a cardiac arrest late last night.

I stared at the message for a second and then read it again but this time looking for a flaw in the communication. There was none. I rang Brendan, who immediately picked up, and asked him if he’d sent the text. He said he had at which point I simply hung up.

Cyrille Regis had gone.

I went back to bed suddenly feeling totally exhausted but couldn’t sleep. Shock has a funny way of dealing with us and we can never predict its affect. I lay in total darkness as my mind and thoughts started to drift back to the days we first met, played and laughed together.

Of course I was never one of the Three Degrees. That was only afforded to Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille and Brendon. An affectionate term that caught the imagination of the media during an extremely successful period for the 1970’s & 80’s African American female singers with the same name.

I was playing for Stoke at the time I met Laurie and he introduced me to Cyrille. I knew all about the boys and would, on occasions, join them in Maxwell Plums, a popular wine bar in Birmingham. I was desperate to be the Fourth Degree and envied the fact that they could share their experiences with each other. Racial abuse at football grounds was out of control and although we didn’t talk about it we somehow felt stronger together.

Strength in numbers was precisely the reason why all the black players playing professional football at the time jumped at the idea to play in Len Cantello’s testimonial game. The match recently shown on BBC television dubbed Black v White: How Football Changed a Nation, was a novel idea at the time and a challenge thrown down by Cyrille’s West Brom’s team mates and we accepted.

To suggest the match changed a nation is so absurd it’s like saying Cornwall is in Ireland! What it did do was provide a sense of pride and togetherness in a group of young black British lads desperate for belonging who suddenly found something that United them.

Cyrille Regis suffered like we all did from racism in those days but he never allowed it to diminish him. He was a giant both on and off the field and literally fed off the abuse. He would chuckle at the thought of the racist knuckle heads who thought that their abuse would somehow put him off his game. They couldn’t have been further from the truth.

He would take that abuse and use it as a proverbial bat to beat them with. This attitude was no better illustrated than in West Brom’s legendary 5-3 victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford. The boos and monkey chants were audibly heard throughout the game, so much so that commentator Gerald Sinstadt was compelled to announce his disgust. But it was the abuse that propelled Laurie and Cyrille into a state of utter focus that instigated their devastating form.

On his day, Cyrille Regis was unplayable. He only won five England caps and it should have been 65. Did racism play a part in the number of caps he should have won? Of course it did, but Big C would never have lost a wink of sleep over that. It was after all England’s loss.

I am not in the slightest bit surprised by the affection in which Cyrille was held or indeed some of the emotional scenes I have witnessed from some of his fellow professionals. To genuine football supporters around the country Cyrille Regis is a watershed moment.

He symbolises a footballer who transcended bigotry and hate and did it with a smile. To his fellow black players he reminds us of the battle that was won with a silent dignity. How fitting that today across football grounds across the nation that silence will be broken by the applause befitting a legend.

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