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George Berry on Cyrille Regis: 'He was a shining light'

  • George Berry played league football in the same era as the iconic Cyrille Regis
  • The defender is remembered for his big hairstyle — ‘I looked like a microphone’
  • Berry recalls dealing with racism - and how he and Regis saw it differently
  • 'The racism was overt and you knew where people stood,’ he tells Sportsmail 

By Ian Herbert For The Daily Mail

Published: 17:31 EST, 28 January 2018 | Updated: 18:03 EST, 28 January 2018

You at least knew who your enemies were back then, George Berry will declare before this conversation is over. ‘The racism was overt and you knew where people stood.’

Yet the painful moment when he and Cyrille Regis stood waiting for a near-post corner at the Brummie Road end of The Hawthorns, in April 1979, is branded indelibly across his mind. He never tires of saying that Regis’ response to what happened there that day took his breath away.

Berry was in Wolves colours, marking Regis and worrying about the forward getting the better of him, as he so often did, when the bigotry started raining in from a supporter whom the defender looked straight in the eye. You could virtually touch the crowd back in those days.

George Berry played English league football in the same era as the iconic Cyrille Regis
George Berry played English league football in the same era as the iconic Cyrille Regis

George Berry played English league football in the same era as the iconic Cyrille Regis

Berry was a big-haired, tough-tackling defender for Wolves and Stoke in the 1970s and 80s
Berry was a big-haired, tough-tackling defender for Wolves and Stoke in the 1970s and 80s

Berry was a big-haired, tough-tackling defender for Wolves and Stoke in the 1970s and 80s

Berry can only watch on as Regis scores for West Brom against rivals Wolves in August 1980
Berry can only watch on as Regis scores for West Brom against rivals Wolves in August 1980

Berry can only watch on as Regis scores for West Brom against rivals Wolves in August 1980

‘It was: “Get back up your tree. Go back to your own country.” Monkey noises. The usual battery,’ Berry recalls. ‘I just looked at this fan and asked him: “Who the f*** are you talking to? Me or Cyrille?” He stopped. He was embarrassed, but it affected me in a way that it never did Cyrille. I remember looking at Cyrille in that moment before the corner came in. He just shook his head.’

Berry will see Regis laid to rest on Monday, in the knowledge that he could never hold a candle to the self-possession of a forward who seemed to believe all black players thought like him.

‘Imagine if we’d reacted by fighting with the crowd,’ Regis reflected a few years ago. ‘People would have said: “Look at them — they can’t handle it.”’

Well, Berry couldn’t always handle it, truth to tell. He’s remembered for one of the biggest hairstyles in football — ‘I looked like a microphone,’ he says of his legendary afro — and didn’t mind giving expression to his sentiments when confronted with bigotry.

Berry recalls dealing with racism from the terraces - and how he and Regis saw it differently
Berry recalls dealing with racism from the terraces - and how he and Regis saw it differently

Berry recalls dealing with racism from the terraces - and how he and Regis saw it differently

He also recounts how he once physically dealt with a racist after 'the red mist' descended
He also recounts how he once physically dealt with a racist after 'the red mist' descended

He also recounts how he once physically dealt with a racist after 'the red mist' descended

That much became clear when some particularly vicious racist invective came his way from the small paddock near the Molineux players’ tunnel after Wolves’ surprise FA Cup defeat to Watford in February 1980. The offending fan did not realise when targeting his own team’s centre-half that the individual in question had also boxed for Lancashire and come under consideration for England youth.

‘I’d given a goal away with the last kick of the match,’ Berry says. ‘I was trying to clear it and scuffed it straight across the 18-yard box and Luther Blissett smashed it into the top corner. We didn’t even have time to kick off again. I knew we were going to get it from the manager and we’d just been knocked out of the cup. You’re not best pleased in a moment like that.

‘I was just walking up the tunnel and thought: “Actually I’m not standing for that.” I walked back on to the track at the side of the pitch, found the fan and said: “What did you say?” He replied: “You heard what I said.” Looking back on it I was confrontational. I sought a confrontation. It was stupid because he was with his mates so he was never going to stand down.

Regis died earlier this month of a heart attack, aged 59. His funeral takes place on Monday
Regis died earlier this month of a heart attack, aged 59. His funeral takes place on Monday

Regis died earlier this month of a heart attack, aged 59. His funeral takes place on Monday

Berry celebrates with team-mate Norman Bell after winning the League Cup in 1980
Berry celebrates with team-mate Norman Bell after winning the League Cup in 1980

Berry celebrates with team-mate Norman Bell after winning the League Cup in 1980

‘But oh boy, the red mist. The terraces were below the track so I was standing above him. And there weren’t even advertising hoardings in those days. You might say I was “in motion”. I went and smashed him one.’

They were different days in so very many ways. Play back the coverage of the game on ITV’s Saint and Greavsie and you won’t find a mention of the episode. Newspaper coverage focusses on Watford owner Elton John being 'telephoned in Los Angeles' with news of the upset.

Wolves manager John Barnwell informed Berry, when he finally made it down the tunnel, that the referee wanted to see him. A police officer awaited him in the referee’s office, where both player and fan were instructed to appear before the chief inspector of Wolverhampton police, at 9am the next morning.

‘We went in there, he gave us both a bollocking and made us shake hands,’ Berry recalls. ‘I think I’d made my point.’

Racial insults were something opposition players also freely reached for every week ‘and some of your own team-mates think it’s funny,’ Berry remembers. ‘You feel isolated even though you are part of a team.’

Racial insults were something opposition players also freely reached for during Berry's career
Racial insults were something opposition players also freely reached for during Berry's career

Racial insults were something opposition players also freely reached for during Berry's career

He says the racist invective has moved from the stands and can now be found on social media
He says the racist invective has moved from the stands and can now be found on social media

He says the racist invective has moved from the stands and can now be found on social media

That’s why he was delighted – and not at all offended – when Regis asked him to play in a match which would today be considered crass and offensive even to those who do not see themselves as 'politically correct'.

It was a testimonial game for West Brom’s Len Cantello, played in May 1979, in which the teams were to be racially based, black players against white. It seems like a cringe-inducing relic now, just like the ‘Three Degrees’ title given to Regis, Brendan Batson and Laurie Cunningham, yet for one day only, Berry felt he was walking in the clouds.

He says: ‘Suddenly, you weren’t in the minority. It was great to be in a dressing room where the humour was normal. I’ve got to tell you there was no 'testimonial' about the game, as far as we were concerned. We wanted to win, do you know what I mean?

'It was important that we won. There was some choice tackling going on. It was a proper game for us. And we did win, by the way.’ Regis scored the goal which wrapped up a 3-2 victory.

He had been resigned to abuse years since, through an upbringing in a then deeply mono-cultural Blackpool where his Jamaican father, a serviceman turned master carpenter and French polisher, had decided they would relocate when work dried up.

Berry celebrates with team-mates Peter Daniel, Emlyn Hughes and Andy Gray after a win
Berry celebrates with team-mates Peter Daniel, Emlyn Hughes and Andy Gray after a win

Berry celebrates with team-mates Peter Daniel, Emlyn Hughes and Andy Gray after a win

Berry, 60, now works as a commercial director for the Professional Footballers’ Association
Berry, 60, now works as a commercial director for the Professional Footballers’ Association

Berry, 60, now works as a commercial director for the Professional Footballers’ Association

Schooldays were initially bleak, as Berry’s was the only black face in the school. The 1980s were not easy in the West Midlands, either. It was in West Bromwich that Martin Webster, who later became the National Front’s leader, saved his deposit at a parliamentary by-election in 1973. The NF made football terraces prime sites for their recruitment drive.

Berry and Regis went different way in the 1980s – Berry to Stoke City, where he became a huge presence, and Regis to Coventry two years later, in 1984.

The world has turned in the decades since, though what concerns Berry is that the invective black players faced from the terraces has simply migrated to the anonymity of social media.

‘The problem you’ve got now is that it’s covert,’ he says. ‘They’re still there but you’re not actually sure who they are. In the flesh, you can always spot a racist. There’s something about them – the way they behave around you. It’s that sixth sense you have. But the racism is laced with jealousy. Back then, some of those fans might have earned more than we did. It’s no longer the case.’

The former defender speaks to Sportsmail's Ian Herbert about his life, career, and Cyrille Regis
The former defender speaks to Sportsmail's Ian Herbert about his life, career, and Cyrille Regis

The former defender speaks to Sportsmail's Ian Herbert about his life, career, and Cyrille Regis

Berry, 60, is now one of the two commercial directors of the Professional Footballers’ Association, an organisation which the Kick it Out organisation’s founder Lord Herman Ouseley says has made a significant contribution to tackling racism. ‘We told them: “A third of your members are suffering this.” He saw and accepted that,’ Ouseley says.

Above Berry’s desk at the PFA’s Manchester offices is a piece of artwork depicting the small group of black players from that era which, despite the gauntlet of bigotry they ran, he considers the very best of times.

‘We were blazing a trail for the young black players coming through and we could take some pride in that,’ he says. ‘We all did our bit but Cyrille was the shining light. He was the one who showed us the way.’

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