Dear Cyrille Regis, I’m writing to you now because your untimely death means that there are things I didn’t get the chance to say to you and because I want you to know the extent of how positive your influence has been on my life and that of my family.
Every Saturday was by the far the most exciting, memorable day I recall as a young boy growing up with my dad, Leroy, being a professional footballer. My happiest memories as a child were waking up in our flat in Streatham, south London, putting on my West Ham shirt with my brother Daron (more often than not before we brushed our teeth) and sitting in awe with Dad as he ate his pre-match fry-up in preparation for his big game at Upton Park in the late 80s.
We would then make the hour-long drive across London together as a family and as his sons we had the luxury of not only watching our dad play against the biggest teams in the country, we also had the opportunity to be in the dressing room warming up with household names such as Liam Brady, Paul Ince and Julian Dicks 20 minutes before kick-off.
Those are memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life and they inspired me to become a professional footballer, but without your poise, class, bravery, skill and desire to break down barriers and play the game you love under immense pressure and scrutiny I doubt I would ever have had these precious times.
You see, even though you were only six years older than him you were my dad’s hero. You were the man he based his game on – watching not only your world-class, outstanding, centre-forward play and goals for West Brom as a teenager – but also the elegance, determination and drive to perform at the incredible level that you did in the face of cruel, inhumane abuse directed at you for the perceived “crime” of the colour of your skin.
My father admits that the pain of vile racism in football had caused him to question his career choice but he had you as a reference point and an example and that helped convince him that you could be a successful, black footballer in the racially stereotyped climate of the 1970s and 80s in our country. If it wasn’t for you he may never have found the confidence, fortitude and self-belief to make a career in the game he loved so much and in turn, those lifelong memories and experiences that I gained as a young boy through my dad wouldn’t have happened so I too may never have enjoyed my own football career without your influence.
With the racial prejudice that you and other players had to put up with and in turn break down I may never have had the luxury of lacing my boots up at 3pm every Saturday with thoughts of dealing with racism from the terraces or opponents the furthest thing from my mind. If it wasn’t for you pushing forward with fearlessness and pride through the time you received a bullet in the post after being selected to represent England, put up with chants of “nigger lick my boots” or bananas routinely being thrown on the pitch with the dignity that you did, the multicultural game that we now take for granted would have taken even longer to come about.
Your immense presence and ability also forced our society to look in the mirror and challenge itself to be better and this is why I am compelled to write this letter to you out of respect, gratitude and honour for the true icon and pioneer of our game. Your goals gave millions of football supporters joy, but your kind-hearted, strong and courageous character gave the generation beneath you (including me) the belief to push forward and follow their dreams without the overt, sickening racism that you and other players had to contend with during your playing career.
The best way that we as the younger generation can honour your legacy is to use the benefits that your struggle has afforded us and move this game and our society further forward. We have a duty to you to uphold your example of skill, humility, passion and respect for future generations to learn that no matter your race, gender, faith or creed, we all have a positive role to play in our society.
We have a duty to you to follow your message that the best way to beat the bigots is to be ourselves, strive to be outstanding at what we do and smile while doing it. That’s exactly what you did.
I had the immense pleasure of briefly meeting you on a few occasions and I regret that I didn’t take the opportunity to tell you how important you were in my father’s life and in mine and also those of countless professional players and supporters. Instead I smiled, nodded and shook your hand with a shy respect and awe which didn’t come close to articulating how you affected and inspired me. I pray this letter somehow reaches you in heaven. You truly were “The Man”.
Thank you Cyrille.
Rest in peace.