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

By Dermot Kavanagh Last edited 21 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

David Heaton

What a player. I had the pleasure of watching him every week when he was at West Brom. He was part of that awesome late 70's side that also included Cyrille Regis and Brendan Batson. If you want to see how good he really was, go on youtube and look for the 12 minutes highlights clip of the Man Utd 3 West Brom 5 game from 1978. Laurie tore United apart that day.

Mark Wilson

"That's a neat little ball from Regis to Cunningham, and if he keeps his head he will score".

Mervin Allen

he is vastly forgotten , probably because he had the distinction playing for real madrid when many of us only saw domestic football weekly as children . i am from the west mids. and the 3 players at west brom, laurie, cyrille, brendan, were pivotal in a very good side . i think the club is having a statue of the 3 players erected . well deserved .

Michael Holland

Ben Odeji was the first black player who played for England at any level and this just shows poor research and a disservice to Odeji who has been fighting his corner on this for many years. I'm sure you will be getting a flood of complaints over this poor journalism. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-e...

Eddy Frankland

Dear Dermot, I read your article with great interest, without doubt the abuse and racism Black players have had to endure in the past, (and in the present), was (and is) ,unforgiveable. I would also agree that Laurie Cunningham was both an exciting and gifted player, one who played a pivotal role in modern black British history, however, I must correct you and point out that as good as he was, Laurie was "not" the first black player to play for England at any level - that honour fell to a school friend of mine Mr Benjamin Odeje, who at the age of 15 represented England schoolboys at the old Wembley Stadium in 1971. If you check wikipedi it shows; Benjamin Odeje (born c. 1955) was the first black footballer to represent England at any level.[1] Signed to Charlton Athletic, he played in five schoolboy internationals, making his debut against Northern Ireland at Wembley in 1971. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.... Our friend Ben (now 60), suffered considerable racial abuse over the years and his even his children suffered as they were ridiculed at school, when they proudly told their school friends that "their Dad" was the first black player to play for England - to which a prompt retort would be, "no he wasn't, Laurie Cunningham was" .
There has been much in the press and on TV about all this and a spokesman for the FA said: "We've spoken to our historian, and at the time the English Schools' Football Association ran the team. "But we can confirm Benjamin Odeje was the first black player to represent England at any level." On that memorable debut at Wembley in 1971, Ben Odeje helped England to a 1-0 win. Given the above, I would respectfully ask you to correct your article or better still, do a piece on Ben Odeje VBR Eddy Frankland

JamesLondonist

Thanks to all those who correctly pointed out that Benjamin Odeje was the first black player to represent England. We've amended the article.