THE PIONEER: THE LAURIE CUNNINGHAM STORY. PART 1
BY Vince Cooper
IN 1955 19-year-old Mavis Trout left her home in Kingston, Jamaica, leaving her young son Keith with his father Elias Cunningham and set sail for England to look for work opportunities. By the time she arrived in Southampton she had learned that she pregnant again.
Mavis travelled to North London where an aunt lived and on 8 March 1956 at Whittington Hospital in Archway. North London she gave birth to her second son who she named Laurence.
Two years later Elias and Keith also crossed the Atlantic and the family were reunited with the parents marrying in 1958.
Having spent his early years in Jamaica, older brother Keith seemed to find it a lot harder to settle in London than Laurie who his father jokingly called “My English boy”. Keith was expelled from school whilst at the same time Laurie was learning to play piano, demonstrating his love of painting and dancing and honing his sporting, and particularly, football skills.
The Cunninghams lived in various places in the burgeoning West Indian, North London community in the 60s but wherever they went Laurie could be found with a ball at his feet and his talents, first honed with local team Highgate North Hill, started to blossom.
A young Laurie
Bob Cottingham, the man who ran Highgate North Hill took his team on an adventurous two-week tour of Austria where young Laurie was undoubtedly the star of the show, even being interviewed on Austrian television. He soon came to the attention of Arsenal, joining the Highbury club at 14. But the North London giants decided he was ‘not the right material’ and released him, along with Glenn Roeder when both were 16.
Glenn and Laurie were quickly snapped up by Orient scout Len Cheesewright and took their talents to East London, coming under the wing of O’s boss George Petchey and his assistant Peter Angell, and quickly becoming the future of the club along with Bobby Fisher and young Paddington-born Irishman Tony Grealish.
The Blue Plaque in Stroud Green.
At the time the Cunningham family were living in Lancaster Road, Stroud Green and a blue plaque is now situated as a sign of the impact he would go on to have on the game.
Within 18 months Cunningham, Roeder, Fisher and Grealish were all first team regulars at Brisbane Road but for Laurie, it wasn’t always easy.
“There was a time when we wondered if we could win Laurie over”, said Petchey. “He turned up for training when he liked. The old eyes flashed when we fined him.
“But I loved that spark in him. That’s what gives him the courage that Arsenal said he lacked. We just had to show him there was no prejudice at our club”.
The fact that the club already had Fisher, who was mixed-race and had been adopted by a Jewish couple, and Indian-born Ricky Heppolette undoubtedly helped Laurie to settle in. “They told him that no more was expected of them or him than any other”, recalled Petchey. “And we encouraged him to caress the ball.
“We believed that skill like that can defeat the aggression which is killing the game”.
Cunningham himself would later recall that it wasn’t easy; “At first I was not the sweetest person to live with”, he would later say. “Nothing stirred me, I felt life should come along and do something for me.
“I was just a dreamer. It took George Petchey and Peter Angell to show me that the only person who could make my dreams come true was myself”.
Petchey was often tough on his young prodigy, fining him for late arrivals for training and on matchdays. Laurie would enter, and win, dance competitions to pay the fines.
In action for Orient against Luton Town
Early on Laurie felt that the colour of his skin would hold him back. “At first I believed to be black in this country was to be a loser”, he would later recall. “George Petchey said the great majority of black and white players are in the same boat, fighting for a living”.
In August 1974 Petchey gave Laurie his first-team debut in a Texaco Cup match against local rivals West Ham United and a week later, in the same competition, he set up Gerry Queen to score in a 2-2 draw with Luton Town. Two months after that came a league debut against Oldham Athletic
Seven days after his first league appearance Laurie produced a performance against Southampton that marked him as a future star. It was a big game for the star-studded Saints, who were in the midst of a poor run and they raced into a 4-0 lead with Mike Channon and Peter Osgood among the scorers.
Orient got two back late on to make the scoreline respectable and they would also have been encouraged by the performance by their 17-year-old winger. “Cunningham had a great game”, wrote Edgar Turner in the Daily Mirror a day later, “showing bags of skill, speed and determination”.
The next glimpse of the budding star’s potential came when he was sent on as sub against Derby County in an FA Cup 3rd Round replay at the Baseball Ground.
Orient were knocked out by an 88th-minute winner from Bruce Rioch but not before Cunningham’s performance had Daily Mirror chief football writer Frank McGhee gushing that this was; “A kid with blow-torch acceleration and eye-catching skills”.
There was also a goal at Stamford Bridge where he took on and beat what seemed to be the entire Chelsea defence before sending in a 25-yard shot that gave goalkeeper John Phillips no chance.
“I’ll never forget those games”, Laurie would later say, “they were the greatest moments of my life”.
An early team group
Another strong memory of the time, although perhaps not so enjoyable, was a match at Millwall where Cunningham, along with Fisher, was subjected to abusive chants and spat on throughout the ninety minutes. Laurie’s response was to score a last-minute winner and then, along with his teammate, to give the Black Power salute at the final whistle with home fans attempting to scale the fences to get to them.
“A kitchen knife flew past us”, says Fisher. “If the crowd had got to us we could have been killed”.
Whilst he was making his mark with displays on the pitch Laurie was also developing his own style off it. Teammate Fisher recalls arriving on the coach for a match at Southend. “I came off with a sparkly jacket, silk trousers, high platform boots and a big Afro”, recalled Fisher. “You could see the Southend boys going ‘what’s this? The circus has arrived.
Puttin on the style
“And then Laurie came off with a gangster suit, shirt and tie, two-tone shoes, fedora hat and a cane. It was like ‘oh man, what’s happening here?”
Fisher and Cunningham became good friends and started exploring London together. From downing champagne at Berkeley Square’s Morton’s Bar to hunting out clothes in Camden Market they enjoyed all the capital had to offer.
Laurie’s dashing style both on and off the pitch was one of the few things to brighten up a humdrum mid-table season for The O’s and their young winger was brought along slowly by his manager until the sale of Barrie Fairbrother to Millwall in March opened up a position for him. On the final day of the season he notched his first goal, grabbing a sensational late winner with Southampton the victims.
After falling behind early to a Mike Channon goal, Petchey’s team equalised through Gerry Queen. Then, with 13 minutes remaining, Cunningham collected the ball on the halfway line, sprinted clear of the Saints defence and finished by slotting the ball past onrushing ‘keeper Ian Turner.
The goal not only secured the points for his team, they also saved Cunningham from yet another fine.
“I turned up half-an-hour late and boss George Petchey was angry”, said Laurie after the match. “he told me that he would fine me £100 if I didn’t score. So I was under a lot of pressure”.
Petchey said: “I’ve been saying all season that he’s got a great future in the game. But it’s about time he scored.
“Laurie is only just eighteen and he’s good in the air, with great control on the ground – but he’s not too good at timekeeping!”
With few changes to the squad Orient failed to show any real improvement as a team in the 1975-76 season and things got even worse in the following campaign with the club narrowly avoiding relegation. The main shining lights were youngsters Cunningham and Roeder, and as the transfer deadline loomed in 1977 the Brisbane Road club (£90,000 overdrawn at the bank) knew that before long they would be forced to cash in on their biggest asset, with their disappointment at the potential loss of their brightest jewel assuaged a little by the emergence of another exciting winger in John Chiedozie.
West Bromwich Albion and, allegedly, other top flight clubs were looking at Laurie and when a ninth goal of the season secured a 1-0 win at Cardiff in early March and even drew applause from the home fans, the battle for his services heated up.
Albion player-boss Johnny Giles offered £75,000 plus two players for the 20-year-old but after watching the performance at Ninian Park he upped his bid.
Orient, hard-hit by injuries, looked to hold on a little longer to their star but the men from the Hawthorns were determined to get their target. A bid of £110,000 with a £10,000 bonus should he win an England cap proved too much to resist so Laurie headed to the Midlands to continue his footballing education saying of his new boss Giles; “Who knows more about the game than him?”
His new manager quickly stamped out any talk of the colour of Laurie’s skin. He said of his new star; “I don’t give a damn whether a boy is black, red or green. If he can play, then I’m interested”.
After having a hand in both goals as the Baggies won 2-1 at Spurs on his debut, Cunningham continued his rapid rise when scoring his first goal for the team (Bryan Robson got the other three) in a 4-0 hammering of an Ipswich Town team who would have gone top of the table had they won.
In Albion colours
Laurie continued his blistering start for his new team when scoring the opener in a 1-1 draw with Newcastle in West Brom’s next match and it was no surprise to see him called up by England for their Under-21 friendly against Scotland in late April.
On England Under-21 duty
With his parents among the 8,934 crowd at Bramall Lane, Laurie celebrated becoming the first black player to represent England at such a high level by scoring the only goal of the game, heading home a Peter Barnes corner.
Watching England manager Don Revie was impressed: “Cunningham is an exciting player”, he said. “He is good in tight situations, and he has excellent control. The lad did well”. Laurie remained ever-present in the Under-21 team over the next year
West Brom finished the season in an impressive 7th place but after numerous clashes with the board, volatile manager Giles left in the summer of 1977.
With Baggies teammate Cyrille Regis
After numerous clashes with the board, Giles resigned from his position as player-manager in August 1977. The Baggies appointed Ronnie Allen as Giles’s replacement but after just six months in the job the club’s former star centre-forward was lured away to Saudi Arabia, accepting a £100,000 offer to manage the national team. Skipper John Wile then took the helm for four matches as the club sifted through the various applicants.
The board at The Hawthorns eventually decided on Cambridge United boss Ron Atkinson, who hadn’t applied for the job but when approached, quickly agreed saying that the First Division was; ‘the place to be’. Within a month of taking charge the new manager and his team proved their credentials by knocking holders Manchester United out of the FA Cup, Cyrille Regis grabbing two of the goals in a 3-2 win.
Cunningham missed that match with a thigh strain and he was also forced to deny reports that his ‘playboy’ image was affecting his football. He sat down for a chat about it with his new manager and Atkinson said after: “Since I came to Albion a month ago I have been concerned about this gossip over Laurie. He is supposed to have been out drinking every night and living it up, so I decided we should sit down and talk about it.
“Like most players he goes out for a drink, but in Laurie’s case too much has been made of it. I trust everyone until they give me a reason to think otherwise”.
Atkinson’s first transfer move was to return to his former club and pay £28,000 for Brendon Batson. The Arsenal youth product had captained Cambridge to the 4th Division title.
Albion continued their cup run with wins over Derby County and Champions-elect Nottingham Forest to make the last four. Cyrille Regis scored in each of the matches to continue his record of a goal in every round but Cunningham had failed to regain his place in the side and was substitute for both of the ties.
He was again on the bench for the semi-final against Ipswich Town at Highbury, coming on as sub for injured skipper Wile as The Baggies fell to a 3-1 defeat to the eventual winners.
Cunningham returned to the line up before the end of the season and Atkinson’s team finished in 6th place, qualifying for the UEFA Cup.
‘The Three Degrees’
Cunningham, Regis and Batson were all in the line up as Albion started the 1978-79 season with an excellent 2-1 win over Ipswich.
The trio soon earned the nickname of ‘The Three Degrees’ after the American singing group and all three played a huge part in Albion’s successful season, starting a combined 120 league matches.
When the calendar switched to 1979 the Baggies headed the table and left-back Derek Statham would later claim that the weather cost them a big chance at the crown. “If the weather hadn’t intervened”, Statham would later say. “Then I’m sure Albion would have carried off the First Division title.
”Going into the New Year we were top but along came the snow and ice, we suffered two important losses, at Liverpool and against Leeds United, and after that we never really recovered, finally finishing third, behind Liverpool and Forest”.
There was also a good European campaign with Galatasaray, Braga and Valencia all despatched in the UEFA Cup before a quarter-final defeat to Red Star Belgrade.
On a personal level it was another triumphant season for Cunningham. He scored 15 times in 57 matches for his club and was chosen, along with teammates Regis and Statham in the PFA ‘Team of the Season’.
There was also progress on the international stage as Cunningham moved from his country’s under-21s team to the ‘B’ side, starting alongside clubmate Cyrille Regis in the 1-0 win over Czechoslovakia in Prague. The following night Viv Anderson started for England in the full international against the same team becoming the first black player to be capped. Laurie would soon follow.
He was picked in the full international squad three times before Ron Greenwood gave him his debut in the Home International match against Wales at Wembley on 23 May 1979. Kenny Sansom also made his first appearance in a game England dominated although they had to settle for a goalless draw.
He was back on the bench three days later with Peter Barnes preferred for the 3-1 win over Scotland.
Laurie played in one more significant match as the 1978-79 season drew to a close. Len Cantello, Albion’s long-serving midfielder was awarded a testimonial and it was decided that a Cantello XI would play against a Regis/Cunningham XI which amounted to a white team against a black team.
The match has now received plenty of attention including a TV documentary and is seen as a defining moment in the game’s, and indeed society’s, attitude to race in the 1970s.
The Regis/Cunningham XI
It was a time when the racism which first reared it’s ugly head during Laurie’s early games was perhaps at it’s peak in the game although Cantello insists that despite having Cunningham, Regis and Batson in their team; “You didn’t hear racism within the club”,
A crowd of 7,023 saw Garth Crooks score the winner in a 3-2 victory for the Regis team and the crowd trouble predicted by some never materialised. Still, it is hard to imagine such a match taking place today.
Soon after the testimonial there were reports that a number of Europe’s biggest clubs were interested in Laurie’s services. And the move, when it came, would be to the one considered to be the biggest of them all.
You can read about that move, the ones that followed and Laurie’s tragic end in part two of ‘The Pioneer’, coming soon.