Cyrille Regis and the long shadow of racism


The overflow of love, respect and admiration within the eulogies for the untimely death of football legend Cyrille Regis is in no small measure  because of the unique combination of his footballing prowess and the intolerable racial abuse he his fellow team mates had to endure on Britain’s football terraces during the 1980's and 90's. One writer wrote: “as they braved the boos and the bananas, their significance as role models for succeeding generations of young black footballers had a value beyond price.”

But as we learnt just last week, for many Black players racial abuse, along with despicable bullying was alive and at times literally kicking not just on the terraces but also inside top football clubs too for decades. Reading the harrowing account of an anonymous Black footballer in last week’s Guardian, where he alleges he was constantly racially abused, bullied and on occasions attacked by either Graham Rix and Gwyn Williams at Chelsea football club in 1990’s.

The Guardian has confirmed that four more Black players have come forward after the initial story of entrenched brutal racism at Chelsea.

I’m not afraid to say shed a fear tears when I read his painful story of powerful people who had his career in their hands and, who in many ways put his life through hell.

But pain and the tears were not just for the writer and the other Black players who would have been subject to this treatment,  but they were also for myself too.  For me and I suspect for tens of thousands of ordinary Black men of women of that generation who  also had to live through, not just gross race inequality in general, but too often brutal, demeaning racial abuse.

I am  closer to Graham Rix’s age than the anonymous accuser, but I acutely recognise the language.  The abuse described  was very much the vernacular  of the late 60’s, 70’s and 80’s racist Britain: ‘Rubber lips’, ‘darkie’, ‘coon’, ‘Black bastard’, ‘monkey’, ‘jungle bunny’ ‘f**k off back to Africa’, ‘ Black wog’, ‘jigaboo’. The names go on and on. The insults were meant to be hurtful, dehumanising and demoralising. 

There were decades in which Black and minority ethnic individuals   were not only treated  grossly unequally; by the police, at school, and or in work, but often we were  made to feel a lesser human being than your white counterpart. Feeling bad about who you were, for no other reason than being Black was a demeaning irrationality you had to somehow rationalise as kid.

I distinctly remember in the early 70’s, being confronted by a venomous gang of white youths, who sang, ‘send the wogs to Vietnam, hallelujah, send the wogs to Vietnam hallelujah.’  I went home and questioned my mother, ‘why do these boys want to send us to Vietnam?  I don’t recall her responding, just holding me and crying.

For many young Black boys of that generation we quickly understood what our best response to brutal racism and insults was to fight back.  As one of just a few Black kids at my primary school on St Matthews estate in Leicester, I wasn’t instinctively a good  fighter, but my older brother taught me to deal with the racist bullies with few good punches.

Thereafter  a few play ground ‘scraps’, probably lasting no more than about 30 seconds, I was deemed the best fighter of my year and much of abuse stopped.  A similar pattern played out at senior school, which was enough to protect me and the handful of other black kids. Our Black self esteem was often derived from sporting heroes such as Pele and Muhammad Ali.

However, dodging abuse from those older and in positions of power  was an entirely different challenge.  I recall as a teenager, hanging around with a group of friends-black and white- when three police cars abruptly stopped and jumped out heading towards us. 

They headed for my friend-the tallest Black kid, Raymond Pyatt, without any conversation they just jumped on him raining blows.  This 14 year kid pushed back as best he could, but in the end they beat him up.  Worst still, he was the one charged with assault of police officers.

As a witness in the dock I was quizzed for more than hour. I told the court I have no idea why the police all of a sudden became aggressive’.  ‘Maybe it was because your friend Raymond was aggressive to the officers’, the prosecutor proposed.  In my quiet 13 year old voice, I informed the prosecutor and the listening jury, that, ‘whilst I always thought my friend  - Raymond - was pretty brave, he’s not stupid to think he beat up five grown men.’ The jury and much of court burst out laughing.  My good friend Raymond was acquitted.  But years later they - the police - did get him. From that point he was very much a marked a man.

I wonder now if any of us came away unscathed, unscarred from that era?  At the very least I  feel  we might need to talk and learn more about the potential long lasting  effect it had  on us.  For decades we’ve chosen to bottle it up and say little or nothing.

Back then and much later if you dared to raise these issues you would again be abused, this time labelled as a Black person,  ‘with a massive chip on his shoulder’.  This was a brilliant device designed not only to close your argument down and, but worse still, make you feel bad for raising it in the first place.

As we rightly applaud Cyrille  Regis and others for keeping a dignified silence during years of racial  abuse, actually what else could they have done,  walk off the field? Go complain to their manager Ron Atkinson who infamously called the world cup winner Marcel Desailly a ‘lazy n****r ’?

Put this in perspective; it’s only now that this anonymous Black footballer has even dared to speak out about what he sees as a very ugly past in which the perpetrators have largely gone unpunished. 

I truly hope that many more former football players, Black and white, will come forward at Chelsea and other clubs to talk about their experience  of racism and bullying from this time. This discussion is both relevant and in many ways urgent. 

We need to better understand the effects of long term racial bullying and insults not least to educate,  support and equip the young  generation of Black  footballers, who might enjoy a largely racist free English football culture, but once they fly abroad the monkey chants, and racial abuse are still all too common.

Equally a better understanding of the footballing  culture that has consistently seen players of colour as inferior – not  mentally strong enough, not  intellectually good enough - helps us address the shocking fact that so few have the opportunity to be either in management at any senior level.

In praising the fortitude that Cyrille Regis and black players had in dealing with entrenched racism,  at the very least we owe them the dignity of fully understanding  what they went through without the indignation that what occurred was virtually nothing.  

Simon Woolley