Cyrille Regis: Powerful memories of time when the sky was blue

Muscular member of the 'Three Degrees' recalls the days when the FA Cup held centre stage and Coventry had their day in the sun against Spurs. Kevin Garside meets Cyrille Regis

The ripped physiques routinely displayed at the end of matches are a feature of the age. "Beach muscle", Francois Pienaar, the World Cup-winning Springbok rugby captain calls it. Honed and buffed by gym routines and beauty regimes, the modern player has never looked so good. A generation ago there was Cyrille Regis, 200lb of naturally occurring beefcake bursting into a penalty box near you.

Should Coventry City be struck down by the norovirus or some other unspeakable bug in the days ahead, Regis, now a thriving football agent, has left next Saturday free, just in case. He is barely seven pounds heavier than he was when he led the Coventry line against Spurs at Wembley in 1987. The implausible musculature that induced sweats in the toughest of defensive nuts is just as impressive at 54, the sleeves of his sweater struggling to contain the biceps within.

Few give Coventry, labouring in the third tier of the English game, a sniff at White Hart Lane. In that the circumstances of this FA Cup third-round encounter are not so very different from that Cup final meeting a quarter of a century ago. "No one fancied us," says Regis. "We were Coventry, playing all right but, you know, it's Coventry, they don't do anything. They have won nothing, etc. The Tottenham team was packed with internationals, 14 of them: Hoddle, Ardiles, Mabbutt, Clemence, Hughton, Allen, Waddle, Hodge, etc. Everybody said we would get ripped apart but we knew different."

This was a time when the FA Cup was still the pot to win. For the club professional without exposure to the glamour and prestige of international football, to pass through the Twin Towers at Wembley constituted a career apotheosis. Regis had been recognised by England and thus had enjoyed a cursory acquaintance with that celebrated turf. For the majority in that Coventry side, though, the Cup run of '87 was the opportunity they thought might never come.

"For two years running we had to win the last game of the season to stay up. One year we had to win the last three. The team had character, good, honest players. The catalyst was the sacking of Don Mackay. John Sillett and George Curtis took over. John changed the way we played. He was a fantastic motivator and man-manager. He gave us freedom to play and he made you feel 10 feet tall. He could dig you out but never bore grudges."

Regis arrived in football's top tier via the tradesman's entrance, passing from the classroom to the building site, working as an electrician by day and training at night, first with Mosley FC and then Hayes. His break came in 1977 when Ron Atkinson took a punt on a raw 19-year-old. What a summer that was. Regis qualified as a fully-fledged sparks in April, signed for Albion in May, worked his last shift in June and moved up to the Hawthorns in July. "I was earning £35-40 as an electrician and £13 from Hayes. My deal at West Brom was 60 quid a week. I got £250 as part of the signing-on fee and stayed on that money for a year. Big Ron just said, "Go and excite me".

By 1979 Regis was an established member of the West Bromwich side that won 5-3 at Old Trafford. In substance and style Albion broke new ground under Atkinson, helping to smash racial taboos in English football in the process. Alongside Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson, Regis formed football's "Three Degrees", a label that stuck despite the crass connection with the American soul sisters who bore the name.

Regis didn't mind the association. Still doesn't. "It was a time in football when there were no black players," he says. "The Three Degrees were playing in Birmingham. From a PR point of view someone thought the three of them, the three of us, let's get them to a game for a bit of promotion, take some pictures. Someone asked Big Ron what he thought of the Three Degrees and he said, 'We've got our own Three Degrees.' It stayed like that ever since."

It is a sad irony that a manager who did so much to break down racial barriers should have been brought low by a racist remark made in a casual aside in a TV commentary box. Atkinson has never recovered his reputation, which saddens Regis, who has huge sympathy for his old boss. "He has paid a big price for it. The reality is Ron did as much for black players as anybody in the game at that time. I remember playing Everton away at Villa under Ron. We had nine black players in the side. He was top-drawer. Without a doubt he made a racist remark but he is not racist, 100 per cent not. We have all said things in our lives out of frustration, anger, stupidity, whatever."

Regis, uncle to Jason Roberts, who made his own stand on racism with his refusal to wear a Kick It Out T-shirt in October – a gesture that followed the Football Association's John Terry racism judgement – believes the game has made huge strides in combating prejudice. "If he [Terry] had said, 'Look, he was winding me up, teasing me about Wayne Bridge, we are playing badly and I snapped, I wanted to hurt him so I called him a name. I'm very sorry. Here's a donation to the anti-racism campaign,' people would have said, 'You know what, he's human. He's made a racist comment, he's apologised.' There is no excuse for it, but people would have understood that instead of all that other stuff about repeating a remark.

"Compared to what I had to put with up, the situation today is completely different. We had five, 10, 15,000 people singing, 'Nigger, nigger lick my boots', bananas on the pitch. I once got a bullet through the post when I first played for England.

"But in 19 years as a player only twice did I encounter a racist remark on the pitch: 'You black so and so' and that was it. Players today are in a different space. They have gone through 30 years of anti-racism campaigns and the proliferation of black players. It has come a long way, but there is still work to do."

When time allows, the Coventry veterans of '87 meet and churn through history. "Once we beat Stoke to get into the quarter-finals we started to think it was on. There was a strange feeling, an eerie confidence that we could win it. We beat Sheffield United in the quarters. Keith Houchen was like Roy of the Rovers, everything he touched in the Cup run went in the back of the net.

"We drew Leeds at Hillsborough in the semis. They were in the Second Division and we were still underdogs. We came in at half-time and Lloyd McGrath, who never says anything, starts singing, 'Here we go, here we go, here we go'. Everybody starts to pick up on it. All of us at the top of our voices singing. We won it in extra-time to get to Wembley for the first time. Unbelievable.

"As you come out of that tunnel, hit the sunlight, the noise, the fans, I tell you this is something special. I had played at Wembley a couple of times, Dave Bennett had been there before with [Manchester] City, the rest of the lads had been nowhere near the place. But we'd beaten Spurs in the League, 4-3, I got the winner, so we knew we could do it."

Despite falling behind inside two minutes, Coventry recovered via Bennett, Houchen's diving header and a Mabbutt own goal to secure their only major trophy in extra-time.

"The final whistle at Wembley is just the sweetest sound. The noise from the Coventry fans, the walk up those steps, the last team to do it. As a young kid, that's what it's all about, lifting that Cup. The only way you got to Wembley in those days was as an international or in the Cup. And we did it." Nice one, Cyrille.

Life and times

Born 9 February 1958 in Maripasoula, French Guinea.

Playing career West Bromwich Albion 1977-84 – 239 appearances, 82 goals; Coventry City 1984-91 – 238, 47; Aston Villa 1991–93 – 52, 12; Wolves 1993–94 – 19, 2; Wycombe 1994-95 – 35, 9; Chester City 1995-96 – 29, 7. Five England caps 1982-87.

Honours Named PFA young player of the year 1978; goal of the season award 1981-82; FA Cup winner 1987; awarded MBE in 2008.

Family tree Older brother of Dave Regis, former striker with Notts County and Stoke; uncle of sprinter John Regis and Reading striker Jason Roberts.

Current career Football agent (Stellar Football Ltd) to players such as Gareth Bale, Darren Bent and Ashley Cole.

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