Between 1977 and 1984, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson made just over 400 league appearances for West Brom between them. Regis, a marauding attacker capable of giving the best defenders trouble whilst Batson was a tough defender. Along with Laurie Cunningham, the trio made up ‘The Three Degrees’ famed for the rare site of three black players in the same team during the 1980s. Now both involved with the club’s Former Professionals Association, they spoke to us about their time at the club.
On their time at the club & the two Ron’s
CR: Ronnie Allen was probably the only man I played for who was a striker, I spent a lot of time with him, he was a Chief Scout and Johnny Giles was the manager. He’d watched me a couple of times and persuaded West Brom to sign me in 1977.
It was a very apprehensive time, a mixture of excitement and fear coming from non-league. I’d just got my qualifications to be an electrician in April and signed for West Brom in May, left London in June to move up there. I’d never done a full day training given I was part-time so pre-season was tough. I Scored in a few friendlies and played one or two reserve games. Injuries in the first team and Ronnie Allen taking over as the manager helped. He told before a game to go home, get some sleep because I’d be making my debut that night.
Not a lot of boys at West Brom had played against men, whereas I had at non-league so I think that helped, a few injuries did put me up the pecking order but it was great for Ronnie to have that confidence in me as a 19-year-old.
It really helped knowing the manager trusted me. He gave me that confidence and a chance but I still had to replicate that on the pitch with performances. I managed to grab that opportunity, it could have turned out different if I’d not scored a goal, I got that window of opportunity and never looked back.
BB: I joined Cambridge in January 1974, they were towards the bottom when I joined and we were relegated, inevitably. Then the following season Ron [Atkinson] came in and my career started to move north as opposed to going south!
We were there for four years; we won the fourth division championship before Ron when to West Brom and took me with him in January 1978. It helps having that relationship with a manager, if he comes back for you and that move suits you then there’s a feeling he’s bought you because he knows what you can bring to the team. You’ve still got to prove yourself to your new teammates, I was his captain at Cambridge so there’s always that weariness among other players.
That period was great, there was a lot of excitement given the cup run the club had just endured, I remember watching Cyrille on TV taking on players in the mud at Old Trafford, of course there was Laurie [Cunningham] too. Everyone remembers that semi-final where John Wile had his head swathed in bandages and blood, unfortunately Ipswich knocked West Brom out and then we got hammered at home by Villa!
I came into the team against Everton and never looked back, it was perverse really, how we got knocked out when I was cup-tied but that allowed me to get back in the team. We had some emerging players, people like Bryan Robson and he really kicked on after pre-season as did the rest of the team. We started in great form and just missed out on being runners-up, but we qualified for Europe again.
On The Three Degrees
CR: You’re so focused on getting into the side and staying in the side, everything else comes after that. With that came dealing with racist remarks from thousands and coping with that when you’re young.
Keeping yourself fit, keeping yourself in form but playing games is your main focus and to stay in the first eleven. But there were racist remarks to deal with, we never really thought about the impact it would have, it was unheard of to have three black players in the team. There were very few around in the top division so at West Brom it was radical.
At Chelsea, West Ham, Newcastle, Leeds etc, the amount of racist abuse we got was incredible. But it taught us to internalise our emotion and use it in our performances. And we actually had a very good time together, we had a great side in the 1980s and our teammates were great, no hassle at all. It didn’t matter if you were black or white, the criteria was if you deserved to be in the side or not. Myself, Laurie and Brendon were black players, it was new and different but we had a great side all told.
The acceptance from the West Brom fans too was phenomenal, if you wear the shirt and show your passion for it they’ll support you all the way, ‘you’re one of us’ kind of thing. At the time we didn’t know it was inspiring people, inspiring the second and third generations of black people to come out and play football.
BB: At the time we didn’t know the significance of it, you’re in a bit of a bubble at times. You play the games, you go home and you train. We could hardly draw breath at times given we had so many games so you don’t really realise the social impact you’re having.
As a player, you’re just interested in establishing yourself and as a black player you were aware of the whispers surrounding the emergence of black players, ‘they don’t like to train’, ‘they don’t like the cold’ etc etc. It was only as you get older and when you retire you hear people talking about the impact we’d made, you begin to realise it was a big thing. Not just because of the three of us, Viv Anderson was chosen for England not long after we came through at West Brom. I remember doing an interview saying Viv was selected because he was the best English right-back, not because he was black!
The spotlight was on us because three black players in one team was unheard of but because we also had a very good team at the time, we were always near the top of the league and regularly in Europe. Bryan Robson was one of the most dominant midfielders in the country and we had players like Ali Brown too, without us being in that sort of team the attention wouldn’t have been the same, and of course we had Ron milking it for all it was worth!
On personal success and legacies
CR: It’s football, and that’s life, there are always ups and downs, glories and embarrassments. It produces great personal lessons. It teaches you a lot about yourself, discipline, commitment, drive, desire etc. It shapes your whole career, but it’s a lot of fun and I was very blessed that I was able to do something I love as a career for 19 years.
I made some big mistakes; every part of it has shaped me into who I am now. I wasn’t always in the football bubble, I know the other side of life too, I had that contrast so I fully understand what some people who have been in football since they were eight years old don’t.
BB: We miss Laurie, what he brought to the game and you don’t always realise what you’ve got until its gone. He was a lovely guy, an extrovert off the pitch but also an outrageous extrovert on the pitch! There are a lot of players who still have a great bond with the club, once people warm to you there is a genuine affection at the club. We’ve got the FPA with about 150 members now, it’s fantastic and it’s been going nearly 15 years.
The supporters really love it and as fans now we love being at the club and talking to them, there’s a mutual appreciation let’s put it that way!
On the current side
CR: Tony Pulis has done a great job, the whole context of football has changed over the years, especially the financial aspect now. West Brom were always a team looking at European football and the top of the league but now the goal is just to survive in the Premier League.
The gap in wealth between the top few and the majority of the league means most are just looking to survive, and that’s a real shame. But that’s what Tony was brought in to do, keep the club in the Premier League and to be fair to him he did that. For a team like West Brom to challenge for Europe would take millions of pounds of investment and that’s not going to happen.
Regarding players leaving, it just happens, even at the top. Tottenham were weakened by losing Bale, Manchester United losing Ronaldo and it could be us with Berahino. There’s always a bigger fish and there is always a club with enough money to buy them. It’s very hard to keep hold of any player if a bigger club comes in. It’s nothing new, if a club wants a player and they have enough money it will happen.
I’ve never been a manager but you need players who are accustomed to your style of your play and your bank balance! Tony Pulis is very good at that, he’s kept the club in the Premier League because he’s got bags of experience; he’s done with Stoke and Crystal Palace too.
BB: When you look at Tony’s career, he always improves his teams, he took Stoke to the FA Cup final and that was a great season for them. Everyone wants to retain their Premier League status but for supporters there’s nothing better than a cup run.
It’s like golf, if you reach the Sunday and you’re in the final few groups there’s still that excitement, if you get to the semi-finals of a cup it becomes really exciting. Look at Aston Villa last season, they had a tough season but the fans would have loved that cup run, even if the final didn’t go to plan I’m sure they wouldn’t change it for the world.
The club will give Tony every opportunity to improve; he faced a hard task last season and I’m sure he’ll look at taking things forward this season. You have to put aside the transfer fees involved with players now, everyone’s value has gone up given the money involved in the game. Some fees make you take a sharp intake of breath but that’s the situation now. You can’t stand still within your own mini league, we know where are competition is and we know we’re circulating anywhere from 10th down to the bottom. Whoever Tony buys, he’ll give them every chance to show themselves and that’s what’s great about him.