Laurie Cunnigham

Tale of a true trailblazer

book1As a modern day football fan I have been a season ticket holder at Brighton and Hove Albion’s new glitzy stadium for the last three seasons. One thing I really enjoy about the match day experience at the ground is there has never been any overt racism against black players.

Sadly that wasn’t the case in the 1970s and 80s when I used to watch football at West Ham and Orient.

Despite being only a few miles apart from each other in East London they threw up contrasting images of what multi-cultural Britain might look like.

At West Ham the fans would throw bananas on the pitch and outside the ground supporters of the National Front treated the terrace queues as a recruiting ground.

Having been exposed to this one weekend I’d then make the trip to Brisbane Road, home of the O’s, with my father the following Saturday and have an altogether different experience.

Here running up the wing just a few feet away from my position right at the edge of the pitch was the nation’s first great black player Laurie Cunningham.

Disappointingly many of my memories of him now are somewhat faded, but I recall the excitement he brought to the crowd when the ball reached his feet and nobody who saw him could argue that he was destined for greater things.

Incredible as it may seem just a few seasons later Cunningham, who became the first black player to pull on an England shirt, was playing for Real Madrid via West Bromwich Albion.

For those who have never seen footage of Cunningham glide past a defender or take a corner with the outside of his foot you should watch The Laurie Cunningham Story, an excellent ITV documentary on the player.

Tragically he is no longer with us having been killed in a car crash in Spain after his career started to take a downward trajectory having been hacked down one too many times by red-faced defenders.

While at West Bromwich Albion he had a magnificent season in tandem with two other trail-blazing black players, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson. As a black oddity in an almost all-white league their skill, power and goals showed the racists up for the idiots they were.

Managed by Ron Atkinson – who has since had his own racism issues – the trio blasted their team up the table and came within a whisker of winning the title. During that period the Three Degrees came to the Midlands and there was an iconic photograph taken of the three singers with the trio of footballers.

three degrees

Paul Rees’ The Three Degrees – The Men Who Changed British Football Forever is a great book about that period and the lives of those three brave and talented players.

The book is at its best when it describes the course of their careers set in the context of the riots, industrial disputes and casual racism that characterised the 1970s and 80s.

What the book rams home for me is just how racist the UK was at that time and how far we have come since then. However, as John Barnes says in the TV documentary on Cunningham’s life, racism was overt in those days and maybe now it is still there but just too ashamed to show its face.

When the England team are led out on to the pitch by a black manager we might be able to say with more confidence that racism has finally been banished from the beautiful game.


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