Growing up, there were not many non-Arsenal players I admired. Cyrille Regis was one of them. This this week I'm looking back at some memories of the great man during the 1980s. RIP Cyrille.
Goal of the season
Although Regis enjoyed a prolific 1981/82 season, he had gone seven matches without a goal before West Brom's FA Cup fifth round tie against Norwich at the Hawthorns. But he would end his mini-drought in spectacular fashion. Taking the ball on his chest, Regis turned one defender, and left another flailing, before unleashing a stunning long range effort beyond Chris Woods. Hardly surprising that the strike won Regis the Match of the Day Goal of the Season.
Before the match, Regis had playfully stated that he would rather score the winner against Norwich than receive a Valentine's Card from Bo Derek. The film star phoned Match of the Day to pass on a congratulations message. "It was possibly the best goal I have scored this season," Regis said. "But I didn't think it was good enough to get a reaction from Bo Derek."
A day after his Goal of the Season, Regis received some good news when he was named in Ron Greenwood's England squad to take on Northern Ireland in the Home Nations Championship at Wembley. Sadly, not everyone was delighted with Regis' call-up.
"All players received fan mail and I was casually opening mine in the dressing-room when I took a closer look at the letters on one piece of paper," Regis describes in his autobiography My Story. "They'd been cut out of a newspaper and stuck down to create a chilling message - 'If you put your foot on our Wembley turf you'll get one of these through your knees.' Also in the envelope was a bullet wrapped in a cotton wool pad. We laughed about it, though - and I kept the bullet."
Regis' response to racism throughout his career was to hit back with performances on the pitch. "Looking back, I can see that we were pioneers in our time, paving the way and opening the door for the diversity of players that you see in the beautiful game today, who are judged purely on their ability to play football." As has been evident in all the recent tributes, there are many who are grateful to Regis and others for the difficult path they had to tread.
World Cup heartache
Regis scored 25 goals in all competitions during the 1981/82 campaign, and had forced his way into Greenwood's preliminary 32-man squad prior to the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain. West Brom had struggled in the league, and a goal from Regis against Leeds had ensured survival. Yet a hamstring injury forced him off that day, and unfortunately for Regis there was more pain to come.
Playing for England in an "A" match in Iceland - later upgraded to full international status - Regis got through 40 minutes of action before he realised that his World Cup dream was now turning into a nightmare. His torn hamstring had ruled him out, with Peter Withe boarding the plane to Spain. "Can you imagine how much you look forward to possibly playing in a World Cup if you've worked your way through as I had?"
Regis even got to perform on the memorable "This Time (We'll Get It Right)" World Cup single, but sadly he had to stay at home, frustrated as an unbeaten England team fired blanks in the second round group stage and exited the tournament.
The Great Escape
By his own admittance, Regis lost his way for a part of the 80s, labelling 1983-86 as his wilderness years. Leaving West Brom in October 1984 for only £250,000, the striker reveals in his autobiography that he didn't want to go to Coventry, but after a period of injuries, and a downturn in the fortunes of the Baggies, no one else came in for him.
Bobby Gould's departure in December, and unhappiness about the training under new boss Don Mackay and his assistant Frank Upton, added to the turmoil in Regis' mind. In 1985, Coventry tried to sell Regis to Wolves for £40,000. "Every day was a struggle. I was low on confidence and in a deep, deep hole which I couldn't seem to dig myself out of."
However, Regis did make a telling contribution in Coventry's great escape at the end of the 1984/85 season. Needing to win their last three matches to stay up, the Sky Blues narrowly defeated Stoke and Luton, before crushing champions Everton 4-1 to send Norwich down. Regis scored twice against an Everton team that was probably in the pub as well as on the beach.
This didn't matter to Regis or Coventry fans, though. "They were the sweetest goals of my career," Regis revealed after the match. "I've had something of a nightmare time here and I was aware that if we had gone down the fans would have blamed me for my lack of goals. And they would have been right."
FA Cup glory
It would take the formation of the popular John Sillett and George Curtis partnership to turn the fortunes of both Coventry and Regis. Playing with a close set of friends in a happy and enjoyable atmosphere, Regis started to show Coventry fans his true class. In an unforgettable 1986/87 season, Regis would help Coventry City win their first major trophy in the 104-year history of the club.
Regis scored in the Bolton and Sheffield Wednesday matches on the road to Wembley, appeared on Blue Peter singing the Go for It Cup final song, and played his part as Coventry defeated favourites Tottenham to lift the FA Cup. "The final whistle was followed by a moment of silence," Regis explains. "I sank to my knees on the halfway line - overcome by feelings of relief, exhaustion and a deep sense of satisfaction."
Regis' renaissance was recognised by Bobby Robson, who included him in the squad to face Turkey in a European Championship qualifier in October 1987. But Regis only saw 15 minutes of action in what would be his last England appearance. Looking back, it seems ludicrous that a player of Regis' ability only gained five England caps, and never played a full 90 minutes at senior international level.
The death of close friend Laurie Cunningham in July 1989 was a turning point for Regis. This tragic event, combined with his marital problems, and a mother encouraging him to take his children to church, led Regis down the path of Christianity. He had been born into a religious family, and often prayed after incidents in his life. But he was now on his way to finding God.
Regis knew that he would get stick from his Coventry team mates, and they didn't let him down. Yet he also knew that he had to change his ways. For a man who had done so much good for a whole generation, admitting his own weaknesses, and trying to do something about it, shows the kind of man he was. Whatever your beliefs, it is reassuring to know that Regis had found peace and contentment in his own faith before his sad death.