By Dermot Kavanagh
A biography of England's first professional black footballer, who represented Leyton Orient, West Bromwich Albion and became the first Englishman to play for Real Madrid
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.”
As Cunningham started to be selected more often, Petchey assigned key player Tony 'Paddy' Grealish the task of keeping an eye out for him on the pitch to look for any signs that the physical and verbal abuse he was getting might start to effect his performance. In January 1975 in a Cup game against high flying Derby County from Division One, Cunningham was brought on as substitute and commenced to destroy one of the country's best defences with his pace, touch and agility. During the game the Derby players dished out verbal taunts with one reportedly saying, “here's the banana between my feet monkey, come and get it!”. No doubt this was considered gamesmanship by an experienced pro trying to gain a psychological advantage over a tricky young opponent (Cunningham had just five first team games under his belt), but Petchey was irritated enough by it to single out the game as a spiteful example of the sustained abuse his player was receiving. Yet he also approved of his reaction,
“the left back gave him an unmerciful kicking, people were throwing bananas on the pitch. At half-time he asked me what do I do about the bananas?, I said collect them up and give them to the linesman don't worry about it. He didn't but he saw the funny side” and adds that he generally advised him to “walk away, don't ever show them that you have been hurt, or that you resent it, just walk away, and to his credit he did that. I never saw him retaliate or do something to show that he had been hurt, he'd often come off the pitch and he'd be very quiet and it was then that one of the players would sort him out. 'Paddy' Grealish looked after him a lot, he was buoyant, you couldn't subdue 'Paddy', he was good especially with Laurie”.
By 1975 Orient were starting to gain a reputation as an improving footballing side and Cunningham was given an extended run in the first team for the last quarter of the season. He was great to watch and caught the eye with his distinctive, upright pin-toed running style looking like a black Nureyev gliding en-pointe across the Brisbane Road mud bath as if it were the stage at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Cunningham appreciated the strength and agility of professional dancers, in particular ballet dancers, whom he admired for their poise and control and amazingly was offered a place on tour with US ensemble The Dance Theatre of Harlem when its founder Arthur Mitchell contacted the club stating his admiration for the player. In a letter he described him as “ the best athletic mover I've seen in ten to fifteen years teaching dance...incredible control of movement with the ability to stop quickly and turn quickly.” It was an offer that Cunningham gave serious thought to, even asking the bemused Petchey if he should say yes to it, who had to remind him it was he who paid his wages each week. The Dance Theatre of Harlem, established by Mitchell in 1968 partly as a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, were the first all-black classical ballet company in the world and had dazzled critics in London with two exhilarating tours in 1974 and 1976. Mitchell, the first black soloist with the New York City Ballet, made it his mission to develop the huge pool of talent in his native Harlem and specialised in developing young, untried dancers who had been overlooked by the dance establishment in much the same way that black footballers in England were being held back. In referring to these young dancers Mitchell inadvertently highlighted striking similarities between them and the young Laurie Cunningham,
“They're like sponges they're unspoiled and untapped. It's fascinating to watch them, some of them are hostile, some of them are introverted, but within a few weeks they're out, they become themselves, not only physically, they take a pride in themselves, their dress changes, they're much neater, they are much more aware, they – they're better human beings all round.”
As the season progressed Cunningham's name was starting to appear with glowing notices attached to it in the local press. In a match against Fulham at Craven Cottage he gave World Cup legend Bobby Moore a torrid, troubled afternoon which he rounded off by scoring the winning goal. His electrifying pace and terrific stamina frightened most defenders, who in struggling to keep up attempted to nullify him with crushing high tackles. To survive he relied on his extraordinary balance to ride and roll over challenges without breaking stride in a flowing, continuous move that resembled a jazz dancers barrel roll. The ability to out-fox angry, antagonistic players with such grace and elan highlighted the gulf between him and more heavy-footed opponents and became a source of great pride to Orient fans.