Archive for January 16, 2018

Cyrille Regis and Racism in Football

Posted in Football with tags , on January 16, 2018 by telescoper

Cyrille Regis, shown here playing for Coventry City in the 1987 FA Cup against Tottenham Hotspur

 

On my way to the airport yesterday I heard the sad news of the death, at the age of just 59, of the footballer Cyrille Regis.  I’ll leave it to those more qualified to post full obituaries of the man – I couldn’t possibly do justice to him as a player and a person – and will confine myself to one memory that remains strong in my mind.

While I was a student at Cambridge there was a University branch of the Newcastle United Supporters Club. This was mainly for social gatherings but, during term time, and when the game was within reach of a day trip we hired a coach or minibus and went to Newcastle United’s away games. Our team had just been promoted to the old First Division at the end of the 1983/4 season and we all wanted to see as much as possible of them in the top flight.

And so it came to pass that on 13th October 1984 we went by coach to Highfield Road to see Coventry City versus Newcastle United. It wasn’t a great game. In fact, it had been picked as the featured match on Match of the Day that Saturday night. When we got back to Cambridge and settled in the JCR to watch it we heard Jimmy Hill (who presented the show in those days) that they were joining the action mid-way through the second half. The first half had not been deemed worthy of transmission.

Despite the generally low quality of the game, there was one star who was easily the best player on the field and  that was Cyrille Regis, who even eclipsed the little magician Peter Beardsley, whom the away fans had come to watch. Powerfully built, with a good turn of speed and excellent in the air despite not being particularly tall, Cyrille Regis proved a constant handful for Newcastle’s central defenders, winning just about every contested header and beating them for pace seemingly at will. In the second half Glen Roeder stopped even bothering to challenge for the ball in the air as he knew Regis had the beating of him.  Newcastle, however, played five at the back for away games in those days and they managed to stop him scoring.

The game ended 1-1 with  Peter Beardsley scoring for Newcastle from the penalty spot in front of the away supporters for Newcastle and Kenny Hibbitt scoring for Coventry. Here are some of the highlights of the game:

An away draw in the First Division was an acceptable result but, unhappily, the memories I have of the match are blighted by what I recall of the actions of some of the Newcastle United supporters who shouted racist abuse and threw bananas onto the pitch whenever Regis came within range. Their behaviour was disgraceful. In mitigation there were only a few – probably a couple of dozen among 4000-odd travelling suporters  doing this – and many of the rest of us shouted at them to shut the f**k up. But the fact that there were any at all is bad enough. It ruined the day for me, and left me feeling deeply ashamed, but as far as I could tell Cyrille Regis just ignored it; this sort of thing probably happened every time he played. How he managed to keep his composure I’ll never know.

Those of us who have never experienced racist abuse can’t really imagine what it must be like to be on the receiving end. The dignity of men like Cyrille Regis in the face of this sort of thing speaks volumes about his strength of character. Above all, he tried to silence the racists by concentrating on his game and being an outstanding player.

All this was over thirty years ago and we like to think that racism is nowadays far less of an issue in football.  I rarely go to live games now, so I can’t really comment on how crowd behaviour has or hasn’t changed. However, judging by the comments of black players racism is still endemic, it’s just that most of the racists refrain from some of the more overt displays of obnoxious behaviour – such as throwing bananas – because they would (rightly) get the perpetrators ejected from the ground. Dealing with the symptoms, however, doesn’t cure the disease.

It seems that even Peter Beardsley (who played in the match I mentioned above and is now, at 54, Newcastle United’s Under-23 coach) has been accused by young players of bullying and racist comments. He denies the allegations, and is on leave while the charges are investigated. I’m not going to prejudge what the outcome of those investigations will be, but his case is a reminder – as if we needed it – that racism hasn’t gone away.

 

 

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