Black History Month: ‘The Three Degrees’ – football’s forgotten pioneers

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Sat outside the New Square Shopping Centre in West Bromwich there’s a statue. It depicts three footballers celebrating.

At first glance, there is perhaps nothing notable about this. Statues of footballers are nothing new and can be seen at various stadiums and in various cities across the UK.

Legendary players stand guard outside the places they used to delight crowds either on the pitch or on the touchline. They were all, in their own way, heroes of some sort. Some, like Bobby Robson – perhaps the finest manager, and man, this island has ever produced – attract almost universal admiration. Others are more personal to specific sets of supporters.

The one that sits in West Bromwich, however, is different. It depicts three black players, Cyrille Regis, Brendon Batson, and Laurie Cunningham. During the 1978-79 season, all three played on the same West Bromwich Albion side. It was something that English football had never seen before.

Not only were these men footballers, and very good ones at that. They were pioneers too.

Racist abuse towards black players at that time was not new, but the concentration of three on the same team seemed to attract particular ire.

Today, black players playing in the Premier League, and for England, is nothing new. It is something that is not even of note, apart from when racism rears its ugly head within football as it does still far too often.

When Reece James came on as a second-half substitute against Wales in October, he became the 96th black and minority ethnic man to represent England at full international level. He did so in a squad that contained many other black players, and in an environment where the focus was on his talents rather than the colour of his skin.

Cunningham and Regis are numbers two and three on that list. Viv Anderson was the first black man to represent England in 1978, with Cunningham making his debut a year later.

But their performances for England are not why their statue stands. Indeed, Batson only ever played three times for England B. It is instead for that 1978-79 season where they were subject to incredible levels of racist abuse due to their status as trailblazers.

Nicknamed ‘The Three Degrees’, after the 60s pop group of the same name, they were part of the West Brom side that finished third in the First Division. They reached the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup too. Cunningham and Regis were named in the PFA Team of the Year. But it was the fact that the Hawthorns side had three black players on their side that ultimately attracted the most attention.

Just over ten years later, three black players on one team would be nothing of note. Indeed, the England side that played West Germany in the semi-finals of Italia 90 contained Des Walker, Paul Parker and John Barnes in the starting line-up.

The game we see today has been indelibly shaped by their courage during that season.

However, in 1978, just one black player was something of note. Three was something extraordinary. It duly saw the trio singled out by opposition fans for particularly venomous racist abuse. Racist abuse towards black players at that time was not new, but the concentration of three on the same team seemed to attract particular ire.

Yet they were unperturbed and responded with dazzling performances week in week out. Both Cunningham and Regis were named in the PFA Team of the Year, with the former later moving to Real Madrid in the summer of 1979.

To many in our generation, they are perhaps forgotten names. But to a certain generation, they are heroes and pioneers. And they should be to our generation too. They paved the way for many black footballers during the 1980s and onwards. The game we see today has been indelibly shaped by their courage during that season.

The death of Regis in January 2018 saw an outpouring of grief from the entire football community, reflecting how large a figure he was in the game for so many. Former Crystal Palace striker Mark Bright described him as ‘more than just a footballer’ who ‘blazed a trail for every black player who followed him’.

They truly were, and still are, heroes of the first order. Not just to West Brom fans, or to black footballers. They should be all of our heroes.

Racism in football is far from something that is consigned to the history books. There is still much work to do. But so much of the progress that has been made is owed to Batson, Cunningham, and Regis.

Our game is far richer for their presence and as a sport we are forever in their debt.

Image: Elliot Brown via Wikimedia Commons

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