Johnny Phillips: Cyrille Regis' legacy lives on - both on and off the pitch

The word ‘legacy’ is commonly used in football. It applies to players, managers, teams and eras. Legacies are created over time and the great ones are talked about forever more. On Thursday it was a joy to play in The Midland Golf Challenge for the inaugural Cyrille Regis Trophy, at Sutton Coldfield Golf Club. The event featured 20 former players from Aston Villa, Wolves and West Bromwich Albion - along with supporters of all three clubs - competing in the name of a former colleague and great friend to many of them. The day was also attended by Regis’s first wife, Beverley, and daughter, Michelle.

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It is over 25 years since Regis retired from professional football. His untimely death, at the age of 59 in January 2018, was deeply felt on the Midlands football scene. Regis was a trailblazer. On the pitch he made his name with Albion in the late 70s and early 80s. His touch, pace and power made a formidable opponent for many defenders and helped establish him as a hero on the terraces. The Goal of the Season against Norwich City in the FA Cup in 1982 epitomised his qualities.

In 1978/79, manager Ron Atkinson led Albion to third in the First Division, behind European champions Liverpool and European champions-elect Nottingham Forest. With Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson, Albion’s three black players attracted much attention at the time. The trio were dubbed The Three Degrees by Atkinson, in a nod to the famous pop trio of the day.

“As a boy growing up in Leeds in the 70s I remember Albion had the famous Three Degrees and, as my Dad was a Caribbean gentleman, he was drawn to that,” said former Albion and Wolves striker Don Goodman. “So, as a second team behind Leeds United, growing up I supported Albion. Cyrille was an amazing player, a phenomenal player, but the biggest tribute I can pay to him was that he was an even better bloke. Those three paved the way for the next generation and made it easier for people like me.”

Goodman was referencing the relentless racist abuse all three men were subjected to in their playing days. They rose above the hostility with great dignity and determination, inspiring the generations of ethnically diverse footballers who have come through and succeeded since.

Cyrille Regis Trophy, at Sutton Coldfield Golf Club

“How it has progressed over the years has been fantastic and they have got a lot to do with the way football has gone, and only for the good,” said tournament organiser and Albion fan Neil Bettridge, of Amros Promotions. “He’s a legend at all four clubs he played for in the Midlands and it’s great to be able to put an event like this on.”

“I was lucky enough to meet Cyrille a few times and he was such a lovely man,” added former Albion midfielder Chris Brunt. “He was a normal down-to-earth fellow who had time for everyone. When I was younger at The Hawthorns he always had time to come and speak to me about my career, and I always respected him for that.”

“We had some great games against West Brom,” said former Aston Villa captain Dennis Mortimer. “Cyrille made a huge impression there, and across the Midlands. I don’t think any centre-half enjoyed playing against Cyrille. He made things happen, he scored goals, that was what he was all about.”

After leaving Albion in 1984, Regis enjoyed seven successful years at Coventry City, helping the Sky Blues to a famous FA Cup triumph in 1987 against hot favourites Spurs. In 1991 he left Highfield Road for Aston Villa, reuniting with Atkinson, before bringing his time in Midlands football to a close with a season at Wolves, under Graham Turner in 1993/94.

A personal memory of that Wolves campaign involved a New Year’s Day fixture at Peterborough United. With Wolves toiling to break down limited opposition, Turner introduced the veteran Regis, by then a month shy of his 36th birthday, as a last throw of the dice. In the final minute a ball was flung into the box and in the ensuing scramble, Regis forced it over the line to secure the victory. It was ironic, for a man who scored so many spectacular goals, that he cemented his place in Wolves fans’ hearts that season with the scrappiest goal imaginable.

Cyrille Regis Trophy, at Sutton Coldfield Golf Club

Years later it was a privilege to interview Regis, by now retired and working as an agent and mentoring many young players who came under his wing. The warmth of the man came across instantly.

“He had such a passion to talk to young people about the game, he loved football and I know he was heartbroken when he had to hang up his football boots,” daughter Michelle reflected. “Dad was full of wisdom, he always gave us life lessons and he continued to learn as a father. I remember when my kids came along, though, he became a completely different individual and all those lessons we had went out of the window for the grandkids. They had him wrapped around their fingers!”

It was perhaps fitting that the former Albion players lifted the trophy following a great day’s golf. After all, Regis cemented his legacy as a footballer at The Hawthorns. But as everybody present agreed, his reach extended way beyond the football pitch.

“His legacy continues through so many different platforms,” Michelle concluded. “Through myself, my kids, days like this and how the clubs have celebrated him. And how people decide to live their lives because of his impact.”

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