This new ITV documentary reflects on the ground-breaking career of Laurie Cunningham, the first black footballer to pull on an England shirt whose impact on the game continues to be felt decades after he was killed in a car accident aged just 33.
Featuring first-hand accounts from key figures in British and European football from the 1970s to the current day, this documentary includes interviews with his team-mates at Leyton Orient, West Bromwich Albion and Real Madrid including Cyrille Regis and Vicente Del Bosque, as well as his managers including Ron Atkinson, members of his family and former players such as Paul Ince, John Barnes, Les Ferdinand, Ian Wright and Mark Bright, whose ascent to the top of the game was inspired by the skilful winger.
“No one talks about Pele as being a black player, he’s just Pele, Laurie at that time just carried that single name, he was just Laurie.” – Brendon Batson
Now, as the issue of racism within football is high on the game’s current agenda, this programme is a timely reflection on the social impact of Laurie’s rise during an era when black players routinely faced torrents of racist abuse from the terraces in England. Known as one of the legendary ‘Three Degrees’ at West Brom alongside Regis and Brendon Batson – the first time an English team had fielded a trio of black footballers – Laurie was one of the first black English players to gain a high profile and the programme explores how he dealt with the prejudice he encountered.
According to his contemporaries, the promising player described as the “Young Pele” by the press wouldn’t allow racist chanting at football grounds to intimidate him.
Leyton Orient team-mate Bobby Fisher tells the programme: “Laurie wasn’t the type of guy who would accept it. He would want to give it back and say, “What’s it all about?”… I think he learned to get back at them in his own way, which was on the pitch.”
Cyrille Regis says Laurie acted as a mentor to him at West Brom, and explains that when Laurie was picked for the England under-21 team, it was a major step forward in race relations within football.
He says: “It’s a real milestone in history – a black guy playing for England. Looking back on it, it was enormous.
“He was a flamboyant footballer, great on the pitch. He helped break down barriers, he helped inspire a lot of black players to play football and made a lot of black people proud that there’s a black player playing for England.”
Produced by Fulwell 73, the programme is given exclusive access to Laurie’s mother’s scrapbook of press cuttings about her son, which indicate the level of adulation he received, his reputation as a top footballer and as a charismatic figure.
The programme uses archive material as well as anecdotes from people and players close to Laurie to depict his beginnings at Leyton Orient and at West Brom.
Bobby Fisher reveals that Laurie entered dancing competitions early in his career to pay his fines for arriving late for training.
The documentary also explores the implications of Laurie signing for Real Madrid, where his career was later to be afflicted by a series of injuries.
After he suffered a bad knee injury, the media attention on Laurie and his high profile meant he was given a ‘playboy’ tag, but when friends visited they found he had become unhappy.
His former manager Ron Atkinson says: “They signed him, gave him a big contract. Then I’m not sure anybody looked after him.”
After spells at various clubs, he signed for Wimbledon, with whom he won the 1988 FA Cup final against Liverpool. The arrival of the cultured midfielder to a club most famous for its long-ball tactics and dressing-room pranks was something of a surprise, says striker John Fashanu.
“I was like “What are you doing here? This is the lion’s den, the Crazy Gang, we’re all mad here”.”
In the meantime, Laurie constantly hoped to reignite a career dogged by injuries, says Ron Atkinson.
“The last time I saw Laurie he had been playing for Rayo Vallecano [in Spain] and we went to Real Madrid to watch a game at the Bernabeu and all through the game, he kept saying “Next year I will come back and show them what they are missing.”
He never did – but 24 years after his death, for his friend and team-mate Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham’s memory lives on.
“He is ever-present to me, he is always around me, because everyone remembers that time. He is forever at the forefront of my life.”
Laurie Cunningham: First among Equals tonight on ITV at 10.35pm