The Forgotten Story Of England's 'Greatest Black Footballer'

By Dermot Kavanagh Last edited 29 months ago
The Forgotten Story Of England's 'Greatest Black Footballer'
Here Laurie Cunningham is celebrated as West Bromwich Albion's wonder winger.

Laurie Cunningham is an unsung hero. Many people believe he is the greatest black footballer this country has ever produced, yet his name is largely forgotten today.

He was the first professional black footballer to represent England when he played for the under-21s in 1977 (the first black player to represent England was Benjamin Odeje in 1971), and the first Englishman to play for the world's most famous club, Real Madrid.

Born in Archway to Jamaican parents in 1956, he grew up in the back streets of Finsbury Park. He played football in Highgate Woods and Market Road in Islington where his services as a 'boots for hire' quickly earned him a reputation as one of the best players around.

At Highgate Wood School his athletic ability and unique dress sense marked him out as special. He taught himself to play the piano and loved to dance.

By his teenage years he was a leading light on the inner-London soul scene, fans of which wore bespoke suits and vintage clothing bought from Camden Passage and Petticoat Lane and danced to imported funk music from America.

These working class dandies were the advance men for the DJ culture of today, and it was on this scene that Jazzie B and Norman Jay first cut their teeth.

Cunningham's first team, Highgate North Hill, was established by a social worker in 1968 and tore up the Regents Park league. He quickly joined professional side Leyton Orient after their manager enthused: "I'd never seen a 16 year old like him before, he could do everything".

Dermot Kavanagh, with a photo of Cunningham in trademark sharp suit.

After rising to national prominence, he joined West Bromwich Albion in 1977 to form part of the groundbreaking trio of black footballers nicknamed the Three Degrees, who brought glamour and swagger to the game at a time of explicit racism and prejudice against black players.

In 1979, in an astonishing piece of ambition realised, he joined Real Madrid where he won the League and Cup double in his first season and reached the European Cup Final in 1981.

Injury and botched surgery curtailed his career and he became a nomad, moving from club to club across Europe and England but never staying anywhere for long.

Back in Spain by 1989, on the eve of the new season, he was killed in a car crash at age 33.

Cunningham in England kit
Cunningham in his England kit.

There is growing awareness about the importance of Laurie Cunningham. He is a pivotal figure in modern black British history, who deserves greater recognition.

He paved the way for a whole generation of black footballers, as his brother Keith says: "My little brother was the greatest. He made it for all those black people, all those players, and he turned the crowd around. They loved him."

Dermot Kavanagh is writing a biography of Laurie Cunningham — Different Class — with crowdfunding publisher Unbound.co.uk. You can support fundraising for the book, and find out more about Cunningham at the dedicated Unbound page.

A previous version of this article referred to Laurie Cunningham as the first black player to represent England. It was in fact Benjamin Odeje, and we have amended the article to show this.

Last Updated 11 February 2016