Though disappointingly there is still a paucity of black managers in today’s game, there is at least a much more balanced dynamic on the pitch. Almost 40 years ago, black professionals were still having bananas thrown at them and disgusting monkey noises made in their direction.
Those that did venture into football for their gainful employment did so in the knowledge that they would have to run the gauntlet at every away ground, and some would even face hostilities from their own fans.
Against that backdrop, Ron Atkinson, someone who was sacked some years later from television punditry work for racist overtones to his remarks, deserves kudos for being the first manager in English top-flight history to play three black players in his team at the same time.
Big Ron, so-called because his personality and character were as large as his imposing physique, took over West Bromwich Albion in January 1978. His predecessor was player and caretaker manager John Wile, who’d only spent 18 days in the position and who would become another folk hero at the club just a few months later, on 8 April, when, after a clash of heads with Brian Talbot as he opened the scoring for Ipswich Town in the 1978 FA Cup semi-final clash at Highbury, he played on, warrior-like, with blood pouring from his head.
It was one of the most iconic moments of that season’s competition, and though the Baggies would ultimately go out at that stage, Atkinson’s seismic decision earlier in the campaign had sent shockwaves around the country that were still rippling.
In fact, it’s fair to say that although the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United were the de facto teams to support at the time, West Brom were the ones gathering more than a fair share of the column inches.
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Laurie Cunningham, Brendan Batson and Cyrille Regis had been christened the ‘Three Degrees’ by Atkinson, and the trio even posed with the pop star all-girl group of the same name at the Hawthorns during the course of the following season. It’s hard to appreciate a time when there were only around 50 black players playing professionally – that’s in total by the way, across all four leagues in England.
Though they’d never set out to be role models or trailblazers, through their skill and hard-work, and allied to a determination not to let the racist bigots win, that’s exactly what they became.
To give more context to the era in which they played, Jim Davidson, a hugely popular comic of the time and one who had prime time slots on national TV, would regularly do ‘comedic’ sketches with one of his characters, ‘Chalky’ Whitely. The sight of this pale, white man attempting to be funny whilst masquerading as a black man, and complete with faux Jamaican patois, is excruciatingly painful to watch again now.
Damn, the man was even given his own show in 1979 to continue bringing his particular brand of downmarket trash to the masses. Factor in that the ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’ – where white men painted themselves to resemble their black counterparts – was another light entertainment ratings winner. You get the picture.
It was an incredibly brave move on Atkinson’s part and for the players themselves, but all shared a common thread that football was king. And boy could these guys play.
Cunningham was a prodigious talent and had learned his trade in East London, at Leyton Orient to be precise. Then, as now, it was an area that fostered an ambience which made it a hotbed for the casual racist. The abuse that he received at Brisbane Road, Orient’s home ground, had to be seen to be believed, and so bad was it at one stage, that he was no longer able to take corners or throw-ins.
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At least he had electric pace in his favour, for it meant that he was never in one place long enough to be distracted by the terrace sideshow. It was that wing-wizardry and the ability to take on – and beat – opponents at will that made him even more of a target. Thugs on the pitch would take turns trying to send him over the hoardings but Cunningham was just too good. An incredible athlete as well as a ball player, no one could get near him.
Though he may not have understood it at the time, he was enabling a new generation of black youths to rise up and genuinely feel that they could make something of themselves. No matter what treatment was being metered out, this lithe speedster was up to the challenge.
After his successful transition to the Midlands at the end of the 1976/77 season, his prowess and mental fortitude got him a call-up to the England under-21 side; the first black player ever to receive the honour. Far from being cowed, Cunningham proudly puffed out his chest and let everyone know that he would be taking his place, deservedly, at the top table.
His flair would ignite West Brom, and when 19-year-old Cyrille Regis joined him, the combination was dynamite. Where Cunningham looked nimble and light on his feel, Regis was an old-school centre-forward. Utterly fearless against every opponent, he’d long since outgrown non-league Hayes, for whom he was scoring for fun.
With a colleague who was totally on his wavelength, and who would invariably deliver a cross on a plate for the big striker, Regis quickly found his shooting boots and helped fire the Baggies up the First Division table. For a while they were even flirting with top spot, and ostensibly it was Regis’ goals that took them there.
A PFA Young Player of the Year award for the centre-forward was entirely deserved, and it’s to Atkinson’s immense credit that this raw talent – one who had been hod carrying on a building site a few weeks before signing for the club – had become the spearhead for the side. Regis was another who found football the perfect antidote to counteract the astonishing level of vitriol that he would deal with on a bi-weekly basis.
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The third musketeer, Brendon Batson, was signed from Cambridge United, where he had been Atkinson’s captain, before the latter had left to take up the WBA job with a promise to make them the most exciting team in the country.
An accomplished defender and superb talker and motivator, Batson wasn’t the most popular on his arrival, but that was more to do with his association with Atkinson than his obvious prowess in the role. He replaced Paddy Mulligan, a likeable member of the dressing room, and though Batson could handle himself, his first few weeks at his new place of work were uncomfortable to say the least.
Mulligan and others were soon to understand that despite his often quiet demeanour, Batson wasn’t a man to mess with. He’d been sent off twice at Cambridge for reacting to racial abuse – ironically from the same player – and he’d gone in hard on an opponent when hearing the same diatribe for the umpteenth time at West Brom.
Such grit and determination eventually endeared him to his colleagues who were also savvy enough to realise exactly what it was that Batson brought to the team.
The moniker that that three had been christened with by Atkinson stuck and, slowly but surely, they began to win over those who had previously chosen to overlook their footballing excellence in favour of ill-treating them because of the colour of their skins. A seminal moment would finally come at Old Trafford in an epic 5-3 win against Manchester United.
Televised, it allowed the watching public to not only appreciate the decibel levels rising whenever one of the black players touched the ball – a fact picked up by Gerald Sinstadt in commentary – but show exactly what West Brom and Messrs. Cunningham, Regis and Batson were all about.
‘The Black Pearl’, as Cunningham later came to be known after a move to Real Madrid, was simply unstoppable on that December evening. It was as good a performance as had been seen for some time, and with terrace bile no doubt fuelling his ire, he set about crucifying the Red Devils. It wouldn’t end with a goal, but one particular move in the second half summed him up perfectly.
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Receiving the ball from Batson on the halfway line, Cunningham took off and, faced by two direct markers, simply turned on the afterburners and powered goalwards. Stopped in his tracks on the edge of the area, the loose ball fell to Regis whose stunning first-time effort deserved a goal but was instead expertly saved by Gary Bailey.
In the very next attack, a long goal-kick from Tony Godden was allowed to bounce before Regis headed onto an already-alive-to-the-possibilities Cunningham. With an expanse of green in front of him and United’s Stewart Houston in hot pursuit, there was only one winner. Despite having a six-yard advantage, Houston could do nothing and his desperately wild swipe to knock Cunningham off balance only succeeded in making the defender look even more stupid.
A vicious low, hard drive put the Baggies back in front again, but the Three Degrees were far from finished. This was to be their crowning glory.
Regis’ pile-driver from 25 yards that was destined for the top corner was somehow again kept out by Bailey, who could do nothing about the pièce de résistance that would shortly follow. It was a work of art that encompassed everything about West Brom’s black players, leaving the Stretford End open mouthed and silent and the away support delirious.
Cunningham would take the ball from near his own penalty area into United’s half. A layoff to Ally Brown was then pushed inside to the rampaging Regis who dispatched it into the top corner with incredible venom. Never has there been a better appreciation of a ‘have that’ moment, which ensured that taunts and the like were shoved straight back down the throats from which they came.
Genuine football fans couldn’t fail to be impressed, newspapers finally celebrated their breathtaking excellence and young black players were ecstatic. Not before time. Some 39 years later, their legacy defiantly lives on.
By Jason Pettigrove @jasonpettigrove