“If I can get through this maybe it will lead to others getting a fair chance” - Laurie Cunningham
“There is a real story to tell here. When I used to go dancing in Soho back in the Seventies I used to look up to these really cool young black guys and Laurie Cunningham was one of them” - Robert Elms
Different Class is the first biography of Laurie Cunningham. By supporting this book you will help Laurie get the recognition he deserves (and you will get your name listed in the book as a backer).
Video filmed by kind permission of Park Theatre during their Laurie Cunningham exhibition.
Laurie Cunningham was the first black footballer to play professionally for England when he represented the under 21's in 1977, and first Englishman to play for Real Madrid. In a time when racist chants and bananas thrown at players from the crowd were common, his time at Leyton Orient and West Bromwich Albion changed how black players were perceived and paved the way for a new generation of black English footballers, but his name is largely forgotten today. I am grateful that the following people agreed to be interviewed for the book. THANK YOU ... Ron Atkinson, Lloyd Bradley, Mark Bright, Steve Cottingham, Keith Cunningham, Mavis Cunningham, Bobby Fisher, Peter Gillman, Paul Gorman, Nikki Hare-Brown, Leon Herbert, Rob Hughes, ‘Huggy Bear’, Jazzie B, Lloyd Johnson, Colin Jones, Bert Jordine, Michael La Rose, Mark Leech, Don Letts, Sid Lowe, Silvia Lopez, Ambrose Mendy, Neville Murray, Dez Parkes, George Petchey, Mark Powell, George Power, Cyrille Regis, Steve Salvari, Toby Walker, Mark Webster and Jah Wobble.
I have sketchy memories of watching Laurie Cunningham playing football for West Bromwich Albion on Match of the Day in the late 1970s when I was in my early teens. To my young mind he was cool and exciting and scored seemingly effortless goals while running rings round flat-footed defenders on muddy pitches. But just as soon as he had arrived he vanished and I didn't think about him again for decades.
A couple of years ago I came across a photograph of him taken in 1975 when he was nineteen years old wearing a 1940s style suit and fedora hat standing on one of those perennially muddy pitches and I couldn't get it out of my head. I discovered he was born at Archway in North London, just minutes away from where I live. Intrigued and curious I had to find out more and discover what happened to him.
His parents arrived from Jamaica in the mid-1950s and settled in Finsbury Park then one of the poorest areas in the country. A tough and vibrant neighbourhood strewn with bomb-damaged houses from the War, it was home to a large black population by the end of the 1960s. As a boy he loved to dance and draw and grew into an exceptional athlete. A quiet and self-contained teenager who took care to dress well, he found expression in the fledgling soul scene that emerged out of pub back rooms and Soho dives. His simple grace and superb balance stood out as much on the dance floor as it did on the football pitch. A team mate from his first professional club Leyton Orient says of Cunningham “one of his major things was to be different, he didn't want to be around footballers, he wanted to talk about fashion, dance, cinema, we'd go to the West End or go and have a look at the clothes on the King's Road.”
Cunningham is an appealingly enigmatic personality. Many people know his name but not his full story. It is a remarkable one of talent and achievement, stalled by injury, that ends dramatically in violent, early death. He was a mercurial and maverick talent who played football at a time when black players were viewed with suspicion by many managements. A contradictory figure, a shy-extrovert and sensitive-dandy, who could play like a dream, then go missing for days afterwards. Through sheer determination he became the first black player to represent England in April 1977 and two years later signed for the world's most famous club, Real Madrid, becoming the first British player to do so.
Different Class is not a typical football biography, it’s also about a time of fashion, music, dance and race. Laurie Cunningham is an important but overlooked figure. He helped change the perceptions not only of football fans but of society too. He won crowds over with his style and swagger and brought glamour to the game at a particularly dark time in its history. His is a very British story of defining yourself through your creativity and imagination regardless of what people think. He is a pioneer whose performances on the pitch meant that black players had to be taken seriously and proved they could succeed at the highest level.
Cunningham breaks into the Leyton Orient first team 1975
When Cunningham and Fisher broke into the first team George Petchey, Leyton Orient’s manager, received heavy criticism from the local press and wider community for fielding so many non-whites. By this time he had also signed the Indian born player, Ricky Heppolette, a strong midfielder, for the specific purpose of protecting Cunningham on the pitch, and the skilful and aggressive young striker John Chiedoze, a refugee from the Biafra-Nigeria civil war. Supporters of the National Front wrote regularly telling him he should stop playing 'these niggers' and he remembers falling out with a local sports reporter who could not comprehend why he was signing so may blacks to the club. The fact Bobby Fisher was mixed-race and brought up by a Jewish family didn't seem to make much difference either, he reflects with irony,“in those days if you had a suntan you were counted as black”.
Petchey wrote back to his critics and invited them to come and watch a local school match where he assured them that they would soon discover that the best players were all black. To the local reporter's charge that his black players were cowardly, a depressingly common view held throughout football, he responded “you tell me Muhammad Ali is a coward, I say no. I tell you what three of them will be great players. Laurie Cunningham will be best, then John Chiedoze behind him and Bobby Fisher.” Read more...
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