JAMIE J recommends a biography of the first black man to play for England
Different Class: The story of Laurie Cunningham — football, fashion and funk
by Dermot Kavanagh
(Unbound Books, £10)
LAURIE CUNNINGHAM was an exciting footballer. He was quick, technically superb, had outstanding fitness levels and a good goalscoring record.
Matt Busby enthused about an “amazing talent” that reminded him of Pele, “with the same rhythm and movement, and the skill, grace and control.”
He rose to prominence as part of the West Bromwich Albion team that lit up English football in the late 1970s and became the first black professional footballer to play for England, making his debut for the under-21s in April 1977.
Cunningham went on to win six full international caps and became the first British player to sign for Real Madrid when they snapped him up for £950,000 in the summer of 1979.
Ian Wright admits that he was transfixed by him and suggests that Laurie was “a shining light for so many of the second wave of black footballers in British football.”
Cunningham not only had “the skills, but most importantly he had the swagger. If it hadn’t been for him we wouldn’t have been able to have played like we did as professionals.”
Before a series of injuries prematurely limited his career, Cunningham had become both a worldwide footballing superstar and “pop culture personality” who represented “something more than just football.”
After being released by Arsenal at the age of 16, Cunningham spent five eventful years at Leyton Orient before joining West Brom in 1977. As part of their fabled “Three Degrees” he helped them to a top-three finish in Division One and Uefa Cup quarter-final before his move to Spain.
Cunningham initially shone in Madrid but, despite scoring 12 goals in a league and cup-winning season that also saw Real reach the European Cup semi-final, things did not go smoothly for him professionally or socially.
When he was seriously injured at the start of the next season, and was forced to play while not fully recovered, despite still being only 25 years old his high-profile career and personal life began to fall apart.
Cunningham made several cameo performances for other clubs in the following seasons, including winning an FA Cup medal with Wimbledon in their victory over Liverpool in 1988, but his injuries prevented him from recapturing the unique combination of balance and pace that had shaped his unique approach to the game. In July 1989, aged 33, he was killed in a car crash in Madrid.
This crowd-funded book, with detailed contributions from his family and childhood friends, delves into the social, economic and cultural conditions of north London where Cunningham grew up.
It examines his personal life and playing career in detail and, while being largely complimentary, does not avoid the controversies in this sadly short but incredibly full life.
Cunningham is fondly remembered by anyone who saw him play.
This book, along with the English Heritage blue plaque that is affixed to his childhood home, will hopefully remind everyone of the huge positive impact he made on English football.
nDifferent Class is available at £10 (ebook) or £20 (hardback) at unbound.com/books/laurie-cunningham