The loss of Cyrille Regis weighs heavy upon my heart.
It is fair to say that he was my first true hero. Of course there were dalliances with musicians and actors but none were ever as exciting as Cyrille, nor were they such a regular presence in my life. I could not witness their adventures on a bi-weekly basis as I did with him.The timing was perfect; I was newly adolescent and unconsciously eager for role models. My first ever live football match was West Brom vs Tottenham on Saturday 2nd October 1976 where, as a misguided Spurs fan, I watched my team go 2-0 up in the first half only to concede 4 in the second to a rampant Albion side. Within a month I’d switched allegiances and the following year I was a season ticket holder at the Hawthorns.
I didn’t know then that those would be the glory years, that the players I’d adore would be the best I’d ever see in an Albion shirt. There would be Statham, Wile, Robertson and Batson in defence, Robson, Cantello, Tony Brown, Ally Brown, Willie Johnston and of course Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis. It’s hard to convince people now that West Brom were an incredibly capable and potent team with real strength and resilience.Cyrille was the very personification of this. He was strong, quick and lethal. It is fair to say that those of us who stood transfixed in the Birmingham Road or Smethwick end, in the Halfords Lane or Rainbow stand, had never seen anything like him.
They were different times. Buff-bodies and ripped torsos are ten-a-penny now but people didn’t look like Cyrille in the late 70s. Track athletes were skinny, wrestlers were fat and few boxers had defined muscle-tone. Unless you were reading specialist weight-training magazines, no-one looked like Cyrille. It’s little wonder that he terrified defenders still used to sinking pints and smoking fags the night before a big match.
Though I lack the recall prowess of many friends who can spew out specific dates, weather-conditions, pie prices and particular instances in matches, I remember Regis goals as well as anyone. Many have been replayed in the last week and they follow a similar pattern. Cyrille would receive the ball near the half-way line before leaving defenders in his wake and the net practically in tatters. He could hit a ball like no-one I’ve ever seen.
He would do this against the very best in the country. Saturday 11th March, FA Cup quarter final vs Nottingham Forest. I was in the unfamiliar surroundings of the Smethwick end corner having been unable to get a ticket in the Brummie. A hopeful ball is looped over the defence and Cyrille slams a volley past England’s best, Peter Shilton. 2-0 game over.
All those goals, all those memories, all the ecstacy. The 1982 goal of the season vs Norwich has been replayed often as has the destruction of Manchester United 5-3 at Old Trafford, possibly the best team performance of its time by an Albion side. He did it often, he did it regularly, he was unstoppable, unplayable. His loss is so much harder to bear and his legend all the stronger since the team fell into decline. Every striker we had would be compared to Cyrille and, of course, none could bear any resemblance. Few were fit to lace his boots.Many of my favourite moments at matches involved Cyrille. Saturday 14th Jan 1984, losing at home to the hated Villa and turning it around with two from Garry Thompson and a final flourish from Cyrille – the latter two being celebrated right in front of where I also jumped for joy.
The memories of Cyrille Regis are linked to those of better times; naturally the nostalgia has helped to deepen the despair. There is also the unquestionable fact that his death awakens my own thoughts of mortality. He was only six years older than me but more than this he was the very epitome of physical fitness. He looked as though he were carved from marble, he looked immortal. To me, and many of my friends, he had the stature of a god, a true giant amongst men. We were privileged to have him on our side and in our lives. I only hope he knew how much he was loved.