First Touch

Cunningham Regis and Batson – The Holy Trinity

The 1978/79 season in England was among the most historic in all kinds of ways, not least in the emergence of black footballers, embodied in West Bromwich Albion’s own Holy Trinity of Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson.

cunningham, regis and batson of west bromwich albion
The Three Degrees
By Dave Bowler

That explosion in black football was marked in a remarkable testimonial game at season’s end when Albion midfielder Len Cantello was recognised for ten years of service to the club with the traditional benefit match.

Such games were always known for their novelty value but Len’s game was more remarkable still, an Albion XI against a team assembled by his colleagues Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham. TV producer Caj Sohal, currently working on a BBC TV documentary about the game in tandem with Adrian Chiles, takes up the story.

Black & White

“There were lots of testimonials back then but the thing that stands out about Len Cantelllo’s is that it was an all white team against an all black one. Just think about that. Imagine if next week, we announced there was going to be a game with a white Premier League XI against a black Premier League XI – I think you would encounter some problems wouldn’t you?!

“When you tell people today that that game happened they look horrified, there’s a lot of outrage, they talk about how it must have been a sign of terrible times and so on. And of course, they were very difficult times, but this game wasn’t a reflection of that side of things, this was about bringing people together.

dave bowler illustration

The intentions, along with helping bringing supporters to Cantello’s game, were to celebrate that first big explosion of black talent that we saw in the game.

“In the past, you’d seen isolated incidences of black players coming through – Albert Johanssen, Clyde Best – but by 1979, there were 50 black players in the league. It sounds like nothing now when black players represent around 25% of all players in this country, but back then, that was starting to reach critical mass if you like.

Top Class

“At the pinnacle of that were the Albion because they had three black players, and not just any old players, but top class ones – Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson.

“That team had a really significant social impact and so the programme that we are looking to make is the untold story if you like. If you were a white teenager, for the first time, you had black heroes. What impact did that have on those kids, how did that project into race relations and into attitudes away from just football?

cyrille regis scores against nottingham forest in the FA Cup
Cyrille Regis scores against Nottingham Forest

“They were a very interesting collection of players because you had those three right at the peak of the game, Remi Moses too, you had Garth Crooks, Bob Hazell and George Berry who were First Division players and then there were a couple of guys from Hereford I’d never heard of and so on, which kind of reflects what an early stage it was with black footballers and how few were at the top at that point. It’s a really great snapshot of a turning point moment in time, in all kinds of ways.

“Thatcher had won the election a couple of weeks before, we’d had the winter of discontent, inflation was 17% or something, right wing politics were at their highest since the days of Mosley, and amid all this, the black population of Britain was having more of a profile than ever before, not just in football but music too.

Two Tone Records

“Again, the midlands is interesting there because you had UB40 in Dudley, a multiracial band, then down the road was the Two Tone thing in Coventry, the region was very much at the forefront of it all. It felt like a time of change, of hope, but at the same time it was one of complete despair!

“Racial politics of that time are so interesting. The stories we traditionally hear are the experiences of the black players and how terrible it was and it is absolutely right that we hear that. Then you maybe hear about the way the extreme right responded.

“What you don’t hear about is the people who were changed by it, who maybe felt uncomfortable to start with, but questioned why and moved on from there. It’s hopefully going to be a warm programme, we are not looking at casting aspersions or saying what a terrible thing that testimonial game was, we’re looking at it as something very positive that played a part in a big social change in this country. We aren’t looking to give an editorial judgement on it, we want to actually hear from the people who were there.

TV Times

“We also want to ask if things have really changed since 1979 in terms of our perceptions and the ways in which we interact with each other? In some ways, it seems an age ago, but it’s a comparatively short time, 36 years.

But it was another world, a black and white world to use a cliché. It wasn’t that long before then that “Love Thy Neighbour” and “Til Death Us Do Part” – the UK version of Archie Bunker – had been big TV shows, you still had the “Black & White Minstrel Show” on a Saturday night, unthinkable stuff now. What people thought was acceptable then is very different from what it is today and for good reasons.

“A lot of perfectly decent people would have used terms back then that didn’t begin to carry the intent or the meaning that they would if you used them today. In a way, that’s good to uncover, because it shows how far society has come since then. It’s not about political correctness, it’s about having friends of all races, sexuality, whatever it may be and wanting them to be comfortable and not having to face prejudice. You learn as you go along.

“Change very often comes from being exposed to other people. It’s very hard to use certain words that were common currency in the ‘70s once you started having black friends, you’d start to think about it harder. Attitudes change, people change and I think the fact that that game could take place then but certainly couldn’t happen now reflects that. But equally, you can’t judge past days on today’s norms.

Love Thy Neighbor

“I think in the ‘70s, things were moving very quickly and some people did struggle with it and had to perform some mental gymnastics to justify it. Adrian told me of a BNP leader he interviewed once who told him his hero was Cyrille Regis. Adrian challenged him on that and his response was, “I wouldn’t want him to marry my daughter but he’s a great player!” It’s extraordinary.

“It was the same with the skinhead movement at the time, where you had a lot of kids who loved Jamaican music but hated Jamaicans! At some point, you come to the realisation that that just doesn’t work, it makes absolutely no sense! So that period was growing something culturally completely new that had the residue of the old way of thinking inside it and that caused some conflict, both within people and in the country.

Kick It Out

“You look back now and there are things that will make you squirm. The whole “Three Degrees” thing does, as does the fact that in December 1978, there’s a picture of them in Santa suits asking “Guess who’s dreaming of a white Christmas?”

“But in the midst of that, it carries immense significance socially and in football. I’ve worked in football for 15 or 16 years and I’ve come across many players and if you talk to the likes of Ian Wright, Mark Bright, Paul Ince, to a man they will say that the guys who convinced them that they could succeed in the game were Cyrille, Laurie and Brendon.

“In the days before Kick It Out and Show Racism The Red Card, they stood on their own and their influence can never be overestimated. I think that, odd as it seems, that team has never really got the credit it deserved, the things like the Three Degrees has turned it into a caricature, a cartoon, and it is much more important than that. Hopefully we will be able to reflect that”.

book on cunningham regis and batson
Dave Bowler’s book ‘Samba In The Smethwick End’ is available here now
Scroll to Top