Friday, 19 January 2018

They Called Him Big Cyrille

Few players are ever afforded the honour of being universally known by their first name. But mention the name Cyrille and everyone knew who you meant. A man who united all, whether you supported his club or not, you admired him for his strength, desire, determination and courage.

These were the late seventies and early eighties when football fans could still relate to the players they watched every Saturday. These weren’t too far from the days when Tom Finney used to travel with supporters on the bus to matches. These were the days when you could’ve played against a player as a kid, who then made it as a professional footballer. We lived through our heroes then, they were us. We dreamed about being them, we pretended to be them in our kick-a-bouts in the street. We mimicked their posture, their peculiarities, their mannerisms, their celebrations.

This was when players were all different, there were tall ones, short ones, fat ones, thin ones, bald ones, ginger ones, lazy ones and those faster than the proverbial off a shovel. Players could be plucked from non-league or just the lower leagues and turn out for the big boys and we it helped fuel the belief the dream was possible for all of us.
They were us. We were them, and we loved them for it.

Sure we had clubs we hated, our rivals, those we despised. But more often we admired other clubs and other players. Down the years some have transcended rivalry, have fought through bigotry to be roared on by fans from all sides.

Cyrille did that.

Born in French Guiana, a French territory on the South American mainland, in February 1958, Cyrille came to England in 1963. Cousin of John Regis, the 200 metre record holder, he trained as an electrician when he left school and then at the age of eighteen he joined Molesey in Surrey. A year later he moved to Hayes and this was where he was spotted by former West Bromwich Albion legend and now Chief Scout, Ronnie Allen. He encouraged the club to take a punt on the youngster, although they baulked at the four figure sum being suggested. Allen was so certain Regis would make it that he offered money from his own pocket to get the deal done. In May 1977 Regis joined West Brom for the princely sum of £5,000. By way of comparison, a couple of months later Liverpool broke the British transfer record when they signed Kenny Dalglish to replace Kevin Keegan for £440,000.

Allen then took over as manager at The Hawthorns when Johnny Giles resigned. Regis scored on his debut for the reserves and so Allen threw him into the first team for the League Cup game against Rotherham United in August 1977. He scored twice in a 4-0 win. He earned a starting place against Middlesbrough the following weekend, and scored again.
The goal? Well, it was to become his calling card, his blueprint. If you ever watch highlights of his goals so many are like this.

He picked the ball up near the halfway line, ran towards the penalty area and unleashed an unstoppable shot past Northern Ireland international goalkeeper, Jim Platt.

It was a goal just like this which was voted goal of the season for the 1981-82 season against Norwich. Norwich played the ball forward into the Albion half and centre-back, Ally Robertson, knocks it back into the Norwich half where Cyrille has dropped back to take the ball on his chest. He his almost on the edge of the centre-circle with his back to goal. The ball drops to his feet and he turns tightly to leave one defender floundering. You then have the hilarious sight of another Norwich defender trying desperately to get hold of Cyrille in a manner reminiscent of Lilliput people trying to grab Gulliver. Cyrille is now away and driving towards the Norwich defence, those legs pumping, the crowd roaring him on. Thirty yards out he looks up, sets himself and unleashes a fearsome drive which roars into the top corner of the net.

These days many a player can fire a shot from that far out as the balls and the boots have changed. But back in these days the balls are heavier, the pitch muddier and less chance of a sweet strike. But Cyrille larrups it to such an extent that if this was a park kickabout, you’d need to take a couple of bus rides to fetch it. You can tell from his teammates reaction they’d seen it all before and that was just Big Cyrille.

Cyrille was an imposing figure. Many teams had big strikers, or “the big number nine” as they were known, but few as mobile or as fast as Cyrille. He had huge thighs and he would just run at defenders in a way which left you believing he would need the fans on the terraces behind the goal to move aside just so he had room to slow down to a stop. Defenders would bounce off him, be left in his wake, floundering to reclaim whatever glimmer of self-respect may be left.

But perhaps more importantly for the time, Cyrille broke boundaries. When he signed for West Brom there had never been a black player represent England at full level, although his teammate Laurie Cunningham, was capped by the Under-21 team a month before. Viv Anderson finally broke into the full side in November 1978. Cyrille became the third black player to represent England when he came on as substitute against Northern Ireland in February 1982. He would never complete a full ninety minutes for his country, winning just five caps at a time when there were plenty of strikers to choose from. Maybe this enhanced his cult status. Records are littered with players supporters rated who successive England managers did not.

At West Brom manager Ron Atkinson was building a team which would take on the might of Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in the First Division. Along with Regis and Cunningham he had a young right-back, Brendon Batson. The three of them would become known as The Three Degrees, a popular black female singing group. They were undoubtedly an inspiration for many young black kids who had believed the world of professional football was not for them, would not welcome them.

December 1978 at Old Trafford they unveiled their own brand of champagne football, or samba football as they embarrassed their hosts in a 5-3 win. Cunningham graced either wing, Tony Brown buzzed, harassed all day in midfield and above it all was Big Cyrille. He scored the fifth but shortly before that he lashed a left foot shot first time from outside the area which rattled the post. The fifth was typical of the game. United had resorted to trying to kick lumps out of these young upstarts who should’ve known better than showboat at their manor. The ball is down by the West Brom right corner flag when Ally Robertson nicks it off Steve Coppell. The ball runs to Cunningham who just turns and runs and runs and runs into the United half. He slows down then passes the ball forward to Ally Brown in the inside right position. Brown turns inside then plays a lovely weighted pass for Regis who is now thundering forward like a juggernaut. United captain , Martin Buchan, has given up the chase by now and Regis meets the ball first time eight yards out and without breaking stride he fires it into the roof of the net.

I can remember listening to Sports Report on Radio Two sometime in late 1979 when West Brom had won and they announced that the club had gone to the top of the First Division for the first time in their history. Atkinson had built a wonderfully attractive young side with the likes of Regis, Cunningham, Robson, Statham, Batson, Owen along with more mature and wily knowledge of Wile, Robertson and the two Browns. They never won anything, with an FA Cup Semi-Final in 1978 being the peak. After finishing third in the League in 1979 they also reached the UEFA Cup Quarter-Finals.

Cyrille brushed off racist abuse like he brushed off defenders when he was marauding towards goal. When he was called up for England for the first time he was sent a bullet in the post. Undaunted this just made him more determined to make something of himself and prove the haters wrong, and boy did he. “I kept it as a reminder of the evil some people had inside them. For the rest of my playing days it was a motivation that they weren’t going to stop me”.

After seven years, two hundred and thirty three appearance and eighty two goals, Cyrille moved to Coventry City where he played almost as many games. His crowning glory was the FA Cup win in 1987. Twelve goals in that season earned him a surprise recall to the England squad as Bobby Robson gave him one last hurrah against Turkey. Unfortunately Cyrille never found the net for his country but this didn’t diminish his legend one bit.
In the summer of 1991 he moved to another Midlands club, Aston Villa where he played two seasons before ending his career at Wolves, Wycombe and finally Chester City. It was a career which spanned almost twenty years, with plenty of memories and many inspirations.

15th January 2018 it was announced Cyrille had died from a heart attack, a month short of his sixtieth birthday. The tributes have poured in.

Jacqui Oatley, journalist and presenter
There are not many West Brom legends who could walk through the door at Wolves and be idolised from day one. Such was the respect that Cyrille Regis commanded. Revered in the West Midlands and way beyond

Pat Murphy, journalist and broadcaster
In all my decades of covering Midlands football, there has been no figure more admired and loved among we reporters than Cyrille Regis. He scored goals we dreamed of while lying in the bath, routed the racists, respected the fans – and smiled.

Players such as Dion Dublin, Shaka Hislop and Mark Bright were equally reverent in their acknowledgment of the inspiration of the man and how he was the reason they went into football.

In 2008 Cyrille was awarded an MBE for his services to football and charity.

It is very difficult to accurately put into words the mark this man made, but rest assured if you choose to look up his record, his moments, his career, you will not be disappointed.

Football has lost a colossus today.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

What is the Correct Way to Leave a Club?

May 1981, Paris, and Ray Clemence sat in the dressing room at Parc des Princes and contemplated his third European Cup success.  Most players never even play in a European Cup Final, let alone three and here was Clem with his third winners medal.  This would go nicely with his two UEFA Cup medals, five league championships and an FA Cup win.  As he sat there watching his teammates celebrate victory over Real Madrid, Clemence had an uneasy feeling inside.  This was yet another success with Liverpool but for some reason it just didn’t feel the same.  He’d kept another clean sheet but it just wasn’t enough anymore.  He wanted a change.

When Ray Clemence told the club he wanted to move everyone was shocked.  He’d not given any inkling of being unsettled and perhaps he hadn’t quite realised it himself, but he felt he needed a new challenge.  So after almost thirteen years and six hundred and sixty-five appearances he moved to Tottenham.

The following May saw Clemence return to Anfield for the first time in his new colours.  Defending the Anfield Road end the crowd kept chanting “England’s number one”, but it was the reception he received when he came out for the second half which took his, and many watching, breath away.  As he ran towards The Kop the whole stadium was on their feet.   

Clemence still says this was the most emotional he’d ever been at a football ground.

But why should Clem receive such a warm reception from supporters he’d walked away from?  He’d given the club his finest years.  He made three hundred and thirty six consecutive appearances between September 1972 and March 1978.  The club was successful and had a worthwhile, if yet unproven, replacement waiting in the wings in Bruce Grobbelaar.  The general feeling was that he’d given us his best and he left with our blessing.  He also announced he was leaving during the summer, which didn’t affect any momentum we might have built up during a season.

The 1981-82 season was a pivotal one for the club as players such as Clemence, Jimmy Case, Ray Kennedy and Avi Cohen all left, with also David Johnson and Phil Thompson moving on during the season.  Liverpool usually only replaced one or two players at a time so to replace five was quite a risk.  They needn’t have worried as the club’s thirteenth League title was secured with that win over Tottenham.  The replacements Grobbelaar, Mark Lawrenson, Ronnie Whelan and Ian Rush soon became legends in their own right, so the succession was seamless.

Maybe there lies the key to whether a player who leaves a club on his own volition, is given the blessing of the fans.

This article, if you hadn’t guess already, has been inspired by the latest goings on surrounding Philipe Coutinho.  It now appears the club has been successful in keeping him, as he is now blaming his ‘advisers’ for the reason he’s made himself unavailable so far this season.

Coutinho’s career was floundering at Inter Milan when he signed in the January 2013 transfer window for a bargain price of £8.5m.  During his three and a half seasons he has become an important member of the team with last season arguably his best.  Barcelona has come calling and for a Brazilian who was spotted by Inter as a sixteen year-old at Vasco da Gama, he may find the lure too irresistible.

The club didn’t want him to leave, the supporters didn’t either but if he had have gone why should it hurt so much?

He signed a new five year contract in January giving us every indication he was going to be an integral part of the brave new world Jurgen Klopp is attempting to build at Anfield.  In pre-season we got a glimpse of what we might be able to look forward to when he combined well with new signing Mo Salah on numerous occasions. The prospect of Coutinho unleashing the pace of Salah and Mane was beginning to water mouths.

Yet on the eve of the new season he puts in a transfer request.  The suggestion was that FSG did not want to be seen to be keen to sell him and so engineered the player into this position to save face.  It would suit the owners if the fans had turned against Phil, as they had begun to and so Coutinho could move into the box marked ‘snake’.

But how can a player avoid this? Is there a right way to leave a club?  Can you blame players for wanting to challenge themselves? Can you blame players for wanting to play in front of over 100,000 people at the Nou Camp?

This hurts us supporters each time.  I was gutted when Luis Suarez left.  I felt proud the club refused to sanction his efforts to leave the previous season, yet you can’t knock the player who did his utmost to try and get us the league title twelve months later.  Some fans still harbour a grudge, but for me Suarez is such a magnificent player he was always likely to want to move to somewhere like Spain.

Coutinho is no Suarez though.  You always knew what you’d get with Suarez. You knew he’d influence each and every game.  But Coutinho goes missing in matches.  In amongst some magic moments there has been some average performances.

But what right do we Liverpool fans have to expect players to stay at the club?  After all, they invariably have come from somewhere else.  Did we consider how PSV fans felt when Suarez left in January 2011?  What about Roma fans having just witnessed twenty nine goals in two seasons from Salah only to see him return to England?

Of course we can’t ignore Southampton who have endured a raft of players moving from the South Coast to Liverpool.  In fact as I write this the ongoing saga of whether Virgil van Dijk will leave St. Mary’s for Anfield continues to rumble on.  I’m sure Southampton fans would’ve loved to have seen more of Lallana, Lambert, Lovren, Clyne and Mane, but they’re Liverpool players now and we want them to do well for us.

It’s not easy being a football supporter but your club is bigger than any player and will exist long after those players have retired.  We’ve lost players before, some of whom I struggled to get over such as Keegan, Souness, McDermott, Beardsley, Alonso and Suarez.  There have been numerous I’ve said good riddance to, Owen and Sterling for example. 

There are also plenty the club has decided to move on and it’s this point where you can see the players’ side of things.  They could give their all for a club but if the club decides in a change of direction then they could be sold anyway.  Coutinho may well have signed a contract but the club could still decide to sell him whilst he’s under that contract. 

Van Dijk is under contract at Southampton and appears to have decided he’s leaving. This saga has been dragging on since virtually the end of last season with the player effectively downing tools. What us fans never really consider is that we’re happy to have a player who has cheated his previous club, preferring to ignore the fact he may very well cheat us.

Do we really think Salah will stay longer than a couple of years?  What about Firmino? He’s twenty six.  Will he still be here in three years time?  These are not Liverpool-born players, it’s not particularly clear whether they’ve been lifelong Liverpool fans so should we expect them to stay here no matter what?

It’s pretty clear these days that players hold most of the cards, although maybe that should be corrected to agents hold most of the cards.  What shouldn’t be forgotten is that Coutinho’s agent is none other than Kia Joorabchian, a name which still strikes fear into many football supporters hearts and who has been effecting transfers worldwide for years since the Tevez affair in 2008.

After all this there are only a few examples of clubs successfully holding onto players when they’re being courted by other clubs, with Suarez and Gareth Bale being recent examples.  Although in both cases it seems they were persuaded to give one more season before their moves were sanctioned twelve months later.

So perhaps we’re to endure this charade again next summer so let’s hope the story follows a similar path to Suarez and Coutinho gives us his very best for this season and we’re challenging for the league title again.  What does seem to be clear, though is that the club were not planning to re-invest any transfer fee (which may have been as much as £130m) back into the playing squad.  The squad needs improving and £130m would’ve gone a long way to helping with that.  But the club was quite happy to pass up the offer as if they don’t really need the money.  Although it could be argued the team would’ve been poorer for the absence of Coutinho and would £130m have replaced him without disruption?  Another question is that Barcelona were offering as much as they were because their coffers had been filled by the Neymar transfer.  Will they still have that much money next summer?  Will any team?  If Coutinho is unsettled again next summer will the club have to accept a lower offer than they would’ve been able to obtain this summer?  It’s a risky strategy in a game where players and agents are holding many of the best cards.

As supporters we’ll go on falling hopelessly in love with our heroes even if they do eventually leave for other admirers.