THERE have been three kings in my life to date. My Dad, Jeff Astle and Cyrille Regis. I doubt there will be a fourth.
Sadly, these three wise men are no longer with us. Jeff, appallingly, died 16 years ago as a result of heading rock-like footballs (with much aplomb) for a living. By the end of his life, a youngster at 59, he did not know who he was. Killed by the sport he excelled at.
My father died last May at the ripe old age of 90. At the end of his life, he was lost in a fog but never lost his charm. Mum has yet to get over his passing – and probably never will.
As for Cyrille, he has just passed away. Like Jeff, he was just 59 when a heart attack did for him. There is no justice in this cruel world of ours.
Without wishing to offend anyone (and especially Cyrille who was a devout Christian) these three kings did not bring me gold, frankincense or myrrh. Just an overwhelming love for West Bromwich Albion Football Club.
A love that on occasion has waned but never left me since my Dad first took me to see the Baggies against QPR in October 1968. I remember the day as if it was yesterday. We stood in the Woodman Corner and WBA triumphed three goals to one. I was hooked. Astle was in his pomp, going on the next season to become the leading scorer in old Division One and then play for England in the 1970 World Cup where (as we are constantly reminded) he missed a sitter.
For my sins I am still a season-ticket holder – as are two of my sons – and probably will be until I join Dad, Jeff and Cyrille in the after-life. Not even Tony Pulis and his sterile tactics put me off. Nor for that matter did Bobby Gould who managed to take the Albion down to the old Third Division at the end of the 1990-91 season. Awful times.
Although Jeff was my boyhood hero, it was Cyrille who thrilled me the most. A year older than me, he came into my life just as I was misbehaving at university after an education spent in an all-boys’ school. Thrilling times – and there was no more exciting footballer in full flight than Mr Regis.
I was fortunate enough to watch Cyrille’s debut goal for the Albion in September 1977 against Middlesbrough. He ran from the half way line like a rampaging bull, shrugged off defenders as if they were paperweights, and buried the ball in the back of the net. It was a trade mark Regis goal – not far off the quality of goal he scored against Norwich in the FA Cup in early 1982, a strike that went on to win BBC’s Match of the Day Goal of the Season.
I knew on his debut that he was special – and God did he live up to his promise. Some 82 goals in 237 appearances for the Albion, a goal scoring ratio he never repeated again as he did the Midlands circuit (Coventry, Wolves and the Villa).
I saw a big chunk of his goals live but if I were able to roll back time and attend a game I missed it would have to be Old Trafford, 30 December 1978. That day, under the inspirational and attack-minded management of Ron Atkinson, West Brom won 5-3 with Cyrille scoring the final goal. It has since been described as one of the best games of football of all time. It is hard to disagree with such a view.
I watched the highlights on Match of the Day. I even bought a dodgy video of the game but the tape melted as soon as I put it in the video machine. Thankfully, YouTube now allows me to watch the goals with great pleasure – again and again. Joyous football at its very best. Sublime skill, little cheating and proper tackles – and packed terraces.
A view through rose tinted spectacles? Maybe, but I would rather watch Atkinson’s WBA than any WBA team since. Ossie Ardiles brought joy back onto the pitch for a while as did Tony Mowbray, but Atkinson assembled a fully formed orchestra of footballers. They symbolised Atkinson’s love of life – his parties in Sutton Coldfield (where my mother still lives) were legendary.
The dashing Derek Statham sprinting down the left wing like a 1980’s version of Harold Abrahams – but with a ball attached to his left foot.
The cool dependable Brendan Batson at right back with John Wile and Alistair ‘Ally’ Robertson forming a centre back pairing that struck fear into most opponents. Hard as nails. No prisoners. They would finish few games today without seeing red.
In midfield, there was the magician Len Cantello and goal machine Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown – both of whom scored against Manchester United. And then of course, Ally Brown (much under-rated) and Cyrille upfront with Laurie Cunningham (another wonderful footballer taken from us far too young) causing mayhem wherever he popped up on the field.
There were others – and I apologise for missing them out. But it was orgasmic football. Multiple orgasm football.
I had the privilege of meeting Cyrille after he had retired from playing and was a footballer’s agent. Rarely have I met an ex footballer so articulate, intelligent and sensitive. He listened and was genuinely interested in others. Only afterwards was I told that Christianity had transformed his life. We exchanged emails but sadly I lost touch with him.
A copy of Cyrille’s book – Cyrille Regis: My Story – sits on my bookshelf at home. This weekend, I will read it again and marvel at the individual who broke down so many barriers in football – and broke through so many back lines, like a knife through butter.
A final thought on the great man. Growing up I sat with my Dad in the Rainbow Stand at The Hawthorns. It has since been demolished and become the East Stand. Surely, it should now become The Cyrille Regis Stand. For ever more. And as a mark of tribute, the WBA players at Everton this weekend should wear the green and yellow striped shirts that Regis so often adorned while on the rampage.
The Three Kings. Thank you.