Right, a comparison: Three players now at Manchester City would have a statue unveiled in their honour in about 2055, books celebrating them would be published and, for good measure, a TV program made.
The civic, national and even global acclaim would be centered on the threesome’s contribution to the season just passed – one in which Pep Guardiola’s side trailed in third in the Premier League.
With every respect to Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and others, it isn’t going to happen. But it is happening to the dynamic, unusual components of the West Bromwich Albion team who gave Liverpool a good run for their money in the title race of 1978/79.
West Brom are seven years into their latest stay in English football’s top division and have never again touched the heights achieved by one of the best sides in the club’s 138-year history, featuring Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis, Brendon Batson.
It isn’t through trophies won that those stars in stripes are remembered so fondly in the industrial heartland a few miles north-west of Birmingham. There were no additions of silverware; just a refreshing overhaul of football’s set ways in the country that gave the game to the world.
Black players, and indeed those from all parts of the planet, are now common in squads. The story in the 1970s was very different, though, and deeply disturbing.
Purely because of their skin color, individuals were routinely booed, abused and ducked fruit thrown from the terraces.
“The noise and level of abuse was incredible,” says Batson in Paul Rees’ 2015 book, The Three Degrees. “You’d get off the coach at away matches and the National Front would be right there in your face. We’d have to run the gauntlet and there would be spit on my jacket or Cyrille’s shirt. It was a sign of the times.”
Flying in the face of this odious prejudice came one of the Football League’s founder clubs and their colorful manager Ron Atkinson. It was he who nicknamed them the Three Degrees after the female singers from Philadelphia.
Albion were unlikely trailblazers in fielding three black players as Cunningham had grown up on the streets of north London and Regis and Batson also spent many formative years in the capital despite being born in the Caribbean.
But the three became a defining part of a thrilling, attack-minded team after being signed by different managers (Johnny Giles, Ronnie Allen and Atkinson) in the space of a year.
Lifelong Albion fan Dean Walton has seen his beloved club play at around 150 different grounds and in 19 countries and says: “We had not seen black players in Albion shirts before and there was racial tension at The Hawthorns at that time. These three certainly broke down many barriers and the number of black players who cite Cyrille as their major influence is testament to the presence of the man.”
Cunningham’s grace, trickery and perfect balance were uncorked late in 1976/77 when he arrived from Leyton Orient for £110,000 ($140,000). Regis, all muscular power and barnstorming runs, was cut loose early the following season. Forwards both, they hit the ground running with goals; plenty of them. Former Arsenal man Batson initially struggled when recruited from Cambridge United, where he had worked with Atkinson, but became an accomplished, unflappable, right back of considerable style.
They made varying contributions to a 1977/78 campaign in which Albion lost an FA Cup semi-final and qualified for Europe by finishing sixth. Then they and others gelled quite beautifully the following season, starting with three successive victories. A 7-1 slaughter of Coventry headlined a run of five wins in seven League matches in autumn and December was positively dizzying, with maximum points from four fixtures, including a 2-1 triumph at Arsenal on Boxing Day and, four days later, a spectacular 5-3 ‘signature game’ success at Manchester United that is still frequently shown on British TV.
Atkinson’s team outclassed Bristol City on New Year’s Day and went top of the table in mid-January. In an era of Liverpool dominance, many saw the Midlands upstarts as title favorites, so exhilarating were their performances over a year and a half.
“I’ve seen us referred to as one of the best teams ever to remain empty-handed,” Regis says. “People still tell us we could have won the League. It was the perfect storm – pure chemistry between excellent senior players and exciting younger ones.”
Hand-in-hand with their bid for a first championship in nearly 60 years, Albion were lighting up the UEFA Cup, discarding the notion that away first legs should be cagey assignments by comprehensively defeating Galatasaray in Turkey and Sporting Braga in Portugal.
Away to favorites Valencia in the next round, Cunningham was magnificent and his goal did more than earn the draw on which Albion fully capitalized back at The Hawthorns. It also alerted scouts from Real Madrid.
It was said Cunningham, his socks down round his ankles, could glide with such poise he barely left footprints in snow. Alas, there was ample opportunity to test that theory as his club was dealt an unkind hand by the weather.
That winter was particularly harsh and Albion twice endured three-week spells without League games. Their rhythm deserted them and two matches were subsequently lost. Liverpool kept playing and kept winning. A fixture backlog that was already punishing thanks to Cup replays and the journey to Europe’s last eight now had other additions.
Albion came strong again with runs of six and four consecutive League wins, but the electrifying spark had gone. The batteries were close to flat. It became perspiration rather than inspiration.
“We cut Liverpool’s lead back but they were used to that sort of congested programme through all their success,” adds Regis. “This was new for us. We had a small squad and, unlike Anfield, The Hawthorns didn’t have undersoil heating. A lot of grounds didn’t then.”
“We all wonder what would have happened if that had been a normal winter without so many disruptions.”
Recognition nevertheless came, only some of it welcome. After Albion even missed out to Nottingham Forest on the consolation prize of runners-up spot, Cunningham made his full England debut. Although a withdrawn individual, he left a big hole when a £950,000 fee made him the first Briton to join Real Madrid. He died in a car crash in Spain, in 1989, aged 33.
His good friend Regis was also well into the teens in goals scored that season. Many of his were spectacular, the result of devastating pace and power. He, too, became an England international – not bad considering the club paid only £5,000 to non-League Hayes for him. He was honored as the 1979 PFA Young Player of the Year.
Political correctness was in short supply then and Albion took on an all-black side, assembled by Regis, for a testimonial game for their midfielder, Len Cantello, in May. A teenage Garth Crooks, who was to win the FA Cup with Tottenham Hotspur and become a trustee of the Kick It Out anti-racism campaign, was in the side.
A program about the radical fixture was made and shown on free-to-view British TV this year.
“The idea was Ron Atkinson’s,” says Batson. “There had been a series of testimonials at the club and this was seen as something different that would appeal to the fans. We all thought it was a great idea and a bit of fun. It reflected the growing number of black players in the game.”
Batson, thrilled that his side won, went on to play 220 matches for the club and enjoy a fine post-playing career in the game. Like Regis, who collected an FA Cup winners’ medal with Coventry City in 1987, he has been awarded an MBE.
Furthermore, the Three Degrees are to be immortalized with a statue on a street near the Hawthorns. West Bromwich Albion supporters, and those with the game’s greater good close to their hearts, continue to hold them close. – Written by David Instone