“Different Class: football, fashion and funk. The story of Laurie Cunningham” – Dermot Kavanagh (Unbound Books, ISBN 978-1-78352-376-4)
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 6 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.
Ex-Arsenal and England player 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 Laurie 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, Laurie 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 a 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 whilst not fully recovered, despite still being only 25 years old, his high-profile career and personal life began to fall apart.
Laurie 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 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 Laurie grew up. It examines his personal life and playing career in detail and, whilst being largely complimentary, does not avoid the controversies in this sadly short but incredibly full life.
Laurie Cunningham is fondly remembered by anyone who saw him play. This book, along with the English Heritage blue plaque that stands on his childhood home, will hopefully remind everyone of the hugely positive impact he made on English football.
This review also appeared in the Morning Star.