(AP) — Cyrille Regis, a pioneer for black soccer players in England who endured racist abuse while forging a career with West Bromwich Albion and defied threats of violence to represent England’s national team, has died. He was 59.
Regis died on Sunday after a heart attack, the West Brom Former Players’ Association wrote on Twitter. The Professional Footballers’ Association, which honored the forward with its young player of the year award in 1978, said Regis was a “great pioneer for equality.”
English Football Association chairman Greg Clarke said Regis “broke new ground and paved the way for a generation of young black players in this country during the 70s and 80s.”
Born in French Guiana in 1958, Regis moved to London with his family when he was 5. He did not come through the youth ranks with a professional soccer club and was spotted playing for non-league teams around London.
“He came into football the hard way and never lost his passion for the game,” widow Julia Regis said in a statement. “He was a role model for so many because he always treated everyone he met with kindness and respect. The world has lost a very precious treasure.”
Signed by West Brom in 1977 for 5,000 pounds, Regis made a spectacular debut by scoring twice in a League Cup match against Rotherham.
Along with Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson, Regis was part of a trio of black players at West Brom nicknamed by manager Ron Atkinson as “The Three Degrees” — after an American singing group of three black women who performed in central England.
A statue of the trio called “The Celebration” was unveiled at West Brom four years ago to honor what Regis described as the “first generation of black players in this country.”
But it was an era when English stadiums were an inhospitable environment for black players, who were targeted with racist chants and bananas.
“We were held as role models when the prevailing thought in football was that black lads couldn’t play football because of the cold weather, or that they had the ability but not the mental strength,” Regis said in 2008 at Buckingham Palace after being made a Member of the Order of the British Empire, or MBE, by Queen Elizabeth II.
Regis scored 112 times in 297 appearances for West Brom before moving in 1984 to Coventry where he won the FA Cup three years later. Coventry remembered Regis as a “strong, powerful striker and gentleman.”
A playing career that also included stints at Aston Villa and Wolverhampton ended in 1996.
Regis became only the third black England international when he made his debut for the team in 1982.
“Clearly someone didn’t approve of my selection,” Regis recalled in his autobiography, “because they had cut out individual letters from a newspaper and stuck them on a sheet of paper to spell out a message that read, ‘If you put your foot on our Wembley turf, you’ll get one of these through your knees.’
“I looked back into the envelope and there was a cotton wool pad wrapped round something. I took it out, opened it up and there it was. A bullet staring up at me.”
After retiring from the game, Regis worked as an agent for the Stellar Group, the company which represents Real Madrid forward Gareth Bale, and worked as a coach at West Brom.
“Regis was courage personified,” West Brom archivist Dave Bowler wrote on the Premier League club’s website. “He and his generation of black footballers had to be.
“Bravery is getting off the team bus only to be confronted by (far-right) National Front protesters who have brought with them a mouth full of phlegm especially for you. Bravery is getting on the pitch and doing your job while bananas are chucked at you.”