A life of racism, glory and the Albion

Regis senses a Seventies revival at The Hawthorns, where crowds are treated to a tasty blend of pace and possession
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The Independent Football

It is too early to predict a full-scale 1970s revival at The Hawthorns but Cyrille Regis finds at least one parallel with his playing days when assessing West Bromwich Albion's positive start to the campaign.

The Midlands club have not finished in England's top 10 since Ron Atkinson left in 1981 but they began the weekend in sixth place, ahead of today's meeting with Manchester City. Where Atkinson was the young manager with "a good, balanced side" then, now it is Roberto Di Matteo, who has already steered his side to victory at Arsenal and a draw at Manchester United.

"Di Matteo wants his side to play a possession game which is what Johnny Giles set down, before Ron Atkinson added a bit more pace," says Regis. "Di Matteo is playing a fantastic passing game and Albion will never be embarrassed on the ball. He has his own philosophy and he recruits players who are intelligent on the ball, not scared of havingit in tight areas. We play a way that is very good on the eye."

Recalling life under Atkinson, whom he later served with the Aston Villa side that finished runners-up in the 1992-93 Premier League, Regis adds: "With Big Ron, one of his barometers was whether he was being entertained."

It is a philosophy that suits The Hawthorns crowd – "they can appreciate other teams coming there and playing well" – and Regis, with 112 goals in 300 games for the club, would know better than most. Born in French Guyana but raised in London, he arrived in the Black Country aged 19 from non-league Hayes and by the end of his second season had picked up the PFA Young Player of the Year prize after helping Albion finish third – one of five straight top-10 finishes before Atkinson quit for Manchester United, taking Bryan Robson with him.

For Regis, the highs included a 5-3 win at Old Trafford in December 1978 and a victory over Valencia en route to that season's Uefa Cup quarter-final. YouTube footage of the former shows Laurie Cunningham gliding past red shirts and Regis smashing in the fifth with his trademark power. Together with Brendon Batson, they were nicknamed the "Three Degrees" – a moniker that did not bother Regis, who heard much worse in a period when racism was rife. "The racism was from the opposition fans," he recalls. "In my 19 years of football there were only two opposition players that called me a black bastard.

"At certain grounds you'd know you were going to get it – at West Ham, Millwall, Chelsea, Tottenham, Leeds, Newcastle, you knew it wasn't going to be one or two people, it was going to be thousands. Before that there was racism in the sense coaches and managers felt black players could not handle the cold weather, were too laid-back or never had enough bottle."

Besides the monkey noises, Regis received a bullet in the post before winning the first of his five England caps, accompanied by the message: "If you put your foot on our Wembley turf, you'll get one of these through your knees."

Although he won the FA Cup with Coventry City, he believes he achieved only "60 per cent" of his promise and that Cunningham, who joined Real Madrid but died young at 33, got "nowhere near his full potential". Yet he received an MBE for his pioneering role, and race-related questions in football remain a concern. "I don't see Asian footballers playing football in this country," says Regis, now a player agent. "I am not saying it is racist but there is certainly an issue."

Regis observes that "what is happening in Russia now happened in England in the late 70s" when talk turns to the racist banner displayed by Lokomotiv Moscow fans following Peter Odemwingie's departure for Albion. If that highlighted an ugly side of the game in a country rivalling England's 2018 World Cup bid, the subject of Odemwingie's impact on West Bromwich is more uplifting. The £2.5m Nigerian international was September's player of the month and should be back from injury to face City today. "When you have that kind of pace it scares defenders. The great thing about Odemwingie is he has hit the ground running. He has used his pace and is scoring goals and that is great because players usually take time to settle. One of the strengths of the Albion is they have players who can unlock defences with pace – like Odemwingie – and creativity – Jerome Thomas, [Chris] Brunt, [Graeme] Dorrans, [James] Morrison."

Albion have never earned more than 34 points in a Premier League season but have 15 already and Regis cites their unbeaten home record as cause for optimism. "Look at Stoke, last year they stayed up because their home form was good. Albion had to be offensive in their thinking, especially at home, and they've done that so far."

Cyrille Regis My Story – The autobiography of the first black icon of British football, published by Andre Deutsch, £18.99