The 5-3 defeat of Manchester United by West Bromwich Albion on 30th December 1978 is often regarded as one of the greatest games in English football. Most notably, it marked the explosion onto the football scene of black British players Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson, nicknamed “The Three Degrees”.
The trio, named after the African-American vocal group, were subject to a torrent of racial abuse from the home spectators. However, their sublime performances were the lasting memory of the game, forcing respect and setting the path for the many black British players that followed them.
Football terraces in the 1970s were a hotpot of baiting of black players, nigger-chants and bananas being thrown. This was a result of a generally more bigoted environment, with racist television shows such as ‘The Black and White Minstrels’ and ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ seen as socially acceptable; and furthermore the far-right National Front able to attach themselves football fans. Fanatical patriotism of supporters was utilised to express racial tensions and immigration fears. Black players had to endure the abuse afforded to them as second-generation immigrants, born and raised in Britain but having Afro-Caribbean parents who were invited to Britain from the Commonwealth to aid the post-war rebuild of Britain’s economy. On matchdays, the National Front recruited new members, encouraged hooligans, sold fascist memorabilia, handed out bananas and initiated chanting within the stands.
The reference made by commentator Gerald Sinstadt to the booing of the black players was seminal as the disgusting behaviour of some fans was called out for the first time. The flair and ability of the Three Degrees forced them into the spotlight and demanded respect. Although racism within football has existed long after their careers, their influence as black footballers was integral to the generation that followed them, and awareness of racism on the terraces was given national attention, finally addressed by the ‘Kick it Out’ campaigns which started in the 1990s. The reaction to death of Cyril Regis in January last year illustrated their significance, captured by Dion Dublin’s very emotional response attached below: