Laurie Cunningham “made it for black people, he turned the crowd around”

In time for The Big Issue's Windrush Special Edition, Dermot Kavanagh charts the remarkable impact of Laurie Cunningham – the first black footballer to represent England professionally at any level – both on and off the pitch

Nineteen-year-old Mavis Trout arrived in Southampton from Jamaica in 1955 with little idea of what to expect. She had left her infant son Keith and his his father Elias Cunningham behind in Kingston to try and make a go of it in England where she had an aunt living in London who could help her out.

During the crossing she learned she was pregnant with another child. The baby, a boy, arrived the following spring on March 8 1956 at Whittington Hospital in Archway and was named Laurence, after her father. Two years later Elias brought Keith over with him and the family were fully reunited when the couple married in 1958. In the next decade the surrounding area especially Finsbury Park and Tottenham became the heart of the black community in north London and the Cunningham family, who moved several times over the years, remained in its close knit streets.

He was the first black player to represent England professionally at any level

Laurie Cunningham grew up to become a pioneering black British footballer. He was the first black player to represent England professionally at any level when he played for the under-21’s against Scotland in April 1977 where he scored the winning goal. He was also part of the glamorous trio of black footballers at West Bromwich Albion nicknamed the ‘Three Degrees’ who electrified the First Division with their buccaneering performances at a time of racial prejudice, when chanting bigots filled terraces across the country, and many managements considered black players to be cowards who were no good in the mud and lacked stamina.

Cunningham grew up in Finsbury Park, a poor area of London with derelict housing and bomb damage still visible from the War. Softly spoken and introverted as a young boy he was a natural when it came to any sporting activities. He loved to draw and paint and taught himself to play the piano at an early age. But most of all he loved to dance.

The Cunningham brothers had very different temperaments. Keith was quick to anger with a rebellious streak that got him expelled from primary school. He naturally looked out for his younger brother, in one incident when they were playing football in the grounds of a white council estate they were chased through the streets by a group of boys. Arriving home breathless their father asked what was up and when Keith explained he insisted he go back outside and fight the ringleader. Like many second generation children Keith had spent his early years in the Caribbean, and as he grew identified strongly with the simple and powerful message of Rastafarianism, whereas Laurie, who never visited Jamaica, was more immersed in British culture through his involvement in football. Elias teasingly referred to him as his “English boy”.

As a teenager Laurie began to stand out for his sense of style and through his love of dancing became a leading light amongst a group of black London soul boys. He had suits made by an old Jewish tailor in east London and competed in dance contests three, four or five times a week. In particular he loved Fred Astaire and jazz dancers. A school friend remembers, “It was freestyle, it was just expression in  the moment..we would have crowds around us when we danced, we’d get soaking wet from dancing and have a change of clothes in the car. Whoever the crowd had thought won, they let you know.”

And then Laurie came off with a gangster suit, shirt and tie, tie pin, two-tone shoes, fedora and a cane

Quite how distinctive he had become was emphasised at his first club, Leyton Orient, when he travelled to a reserve team match in Southend in 1973. Sitting on the team bus with his friends Tony Grealish, a voluble London Irishman who was brought up above a pub in Paddington and Bobby Fisher, a mixed-race team-mate who had been adopted by a Jewish couple, Fisher recalls the moment they stepped out,There was Tony Grealish big beard, loon pants, platform shoes and a jacket. I came off with a sparkly jacket, silk trousers and high platform boots and a big Afro. You could see the Southend boys going “What’s this? The circus has arrived’. And then Laurie came off with a gangster suit, shirt and tie, tie pin, two-tone shoes, fedora and a cane, and it was like ‘Oh, Man! What’s happening here?”

Along with Fisher he started to explore London. The pair talked about cinema, music and fashion, or got the tube into the West End to blow their apprentice wages on bottles of champagne at Morton’s Piano Bar in Berkeley Square. They would pay visits to the King’s Road in Chelsea to look at the clothes, search Petticoat Lane, or the flea market at Camden Passage in Islington where demob suits, hats and second-hand ties were sold from piles on the ground.

In north London the animosity felt towards the police from black youths was universal, after their heavy-handed use of stop and search – in one case a social worker complained to police that a 14-year-old boy in their care had been assaulted and during the next twenty eight days was stopped 38 times. Homeless or unemployed youth had nowhere to go until a hostel, known locally as ‘the black house’ was set up at a disused butcher’s shop at 571 Holloway Road by a former bricklayer from Antigua called Herman Edwards. Keith Cunningham worked there for a while, his friend Eustus stayed there after he was thrown out by his parents, and he recalls,It was somewhere to go, they would teach you about black history, try to get you to see if you could understand”. Edwards spent most of his time trying to keep the vulnerable people in his care out of prison or stop them being put on remand after arrest under the infamous ‘sus’ laws that were disproportionately used against black youths at this time.

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Keith and Eustus helped run the ‘Sir Power’ sound system from the house, with a rallying call of ‘Sir Power on the hour’ it played at dances across Tottenham, Stoke Newington and Hackney. Records were sent directly from Prince Busters Record shop on 127 Orange Street in Kingtson. The local greengrocer Mr Young lent them his van and a friend’s father who was a carpenter built the speaker cabinets. On one memorable occasion with a traffic jam building up on Archway roundabout Islington police made a black Maria available to help transport the equipment. “It made a change, usually they were confiscating it!” Keith later quipped.

By the age of 21 Laurie Cunningham’s profile had risen enough for him to grab the attention of First Division clubs. He signed for West Bromwich Albion in March 1977 and left London for Birmingham where he became one of the most exciting young players in the country. The Cunningham brothers followed very different paths but remained close throughout their lives. In 1979 Laurie astonished everybody when he signed for Real Madrid, for close to £1 million, becoming the first Englishman to do so. His new manager called him “the best player in Europe”. Despite early success his time in Spain was undermined by injury and poor medical care but most of all by bad luck. He was killed in a car crash in Madrid, ten years after first arriving there, aged 33 in July 1989.

Laurie Cunningham achieved great things in his career under the most trying of circumstances. He showed that black players were professional and could succeed at the highest level. He was an outstanding representative of a generation who grew up during a time when the term Black British had yet to be defined. His brother Keith put it well when he said: “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.”

Laurie Cunningham
Laurie-Cunningham-book

Different Class: The Story of Laurie Cunningham by Dermot Kavanagh is published in paperback on 11 July (Unbound £9.99)

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