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Electric, Stylish, Dignified

Laurie Cunningham On and Off the Football Pitch

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Sam Bennett

“He wanted to do much more than football, and who knows what he might have done had he been given the time to do it.”

Dougie Blaxland is the writing name of James Graham-Brown, a former professional cricketer for Kent, Derbyshire and Young England. He wasn’t great, he says from Bath, “but I played the game for eight, nine years so I understand what professional sport is like; the pressures and what have you. I suppose that’s how I’ve ended up writing about sportsmen and sportswomen.” Here he talks to Sam Bennett about his new play, Getting the Third Degree. Touring the UK in October to coincide with Black History Month, it’s the story of Laurie Cunningham, who helped pave the way for a generation of young black footballers before his own life was cut tragically short.

When he was “a white, blue-eyed, fair-haired boy”, Dougie Blaxland’s footballing hero was Bobby Moore. One day, when Moore was at Fulham, he went to Craven Cottage to watch them face Leyton Orient and a “little slippery youth” called Laurie Cunningham. This kid, who would later become the first black player to sign for Real Madrid, “made my hero look like a carthorse, he nutmegged him twice, went round him as if he wasn’t there; his flicks with the ball, his touches, his swerve, his ability to swing the ball off the inside of his foot – he was electric, extraordinary, elusive.”

The play he’s written based on Cunningham’s life, Getting the Third Degree, marks the 25th anniversary of Kick It Out’s campaign to tackle racism and discrimination in football. I ask him how successful he thinks that campaign has been. If we go back to the late seventies, he says, when Cunningham was playing for West Bromwich Albion, “there was this handful of black footballers and they received torrid abuse, horrendous. I remember going to West Ham and listening to the chants in the crowd that nobody reported. There was no awareness, no willingness to tackle this.” The war has not been won, he points out, which Kick It Out would be first to say. “This is an ongoing battle and never has there been a more difficult time to deal with issues relating to racism that have resurfaced in the last three to four years, really poignantly, not just in Britain but across the western world. But we need to acknowledge the journey we’ve come on. Those footballers who played in the seventies and into the eighties have inspired a generation of people to come through.” He cites Gareth Southgate’s World Cup team of last year, its “multiracial nature a much better reflection of current Britain than an all-white side would have been”, and sees Kick It Out as having “played a very significant role in raising awareness and continuing to argue the case”.

After Orient, Cunningham signed for West Bromwich Albion, where he’d go on to play in a side with Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson in the 78-79 season (manager Ron Atkinson famously nicknamed them ‘The Three Degrees’ after the female vocal group, which is partly why Blaxland has named his play thus). That season “coincided with the Winter of Discontent; James Callaghan’s government, the time of wage restraint, where bins weren’t collected. We were in a state of industrial strife, of real tension. And of course, the National Front used that to target the black population: ‘they’re taking our jobs, things aren’t good because of them’ – the pointing of the finger that went on in the late 1970s.” In Cunningham, Regis and Batson, West Brom fielded three black players, who became victims of National Front-led racism. “The politics of football reflects wider society, no question about that at all, the attitudes that we see – perhaps sometimes condensed, sometimes undiluted – on the terraces of football grounds are expressed in a lot of people’s private thoughts and over social media.” He still witnesses “casual remarks from people who should know better, at dinner parties, in pubs. There is this ongoing implicit sense of white supremacy. It’s there. I don’t want to overstate the case because there are so many really good people who have a tolerant and open attitude to all human beings and all of human nature, but it’s not universal.”

When I bring up how Cunningham could respond to racist attacks, he says “there were one or two controversial moments” such as the black power salute he and Bobby Fisher did to racist Millwall fans after a Cunningham goal for Orient – a riot followed. “But he learnt not to be provocative,” resumes the playwright, “he learnt in the end to answer it with his football.” Regis, Batson and he knew “the most important thing was dignity, that in the face of the spitting and the shouting, they could rise above that and show a level of civilised behaviour that [showed who] belonged in the jungle: the people saying these things, not these dignified footballers who were part of something creative.”

Also a skilled dancer, Cunningham exercised his creativity off the pitch too, writing poetry and painting. “He was a philosopher, quietly spoken, humble – of course he was a very beautiful looking human being.” There was a calmness and “amazing vitality” to him. He was well-dressed as well, I say. “Oh, cool, I mean, cool, cool, cool.” He achieved looks via “clothes from a ragbag collection of shops and a real sense of style”. One photograph presents the footballer stood in Brisbane Road, home of Leyton Orient, donning a broad tie and double breasted suit – “his Gatsby look”. Also able to channel the coolness of James Dean in a leather jacket, “there was something a little bit David Bowie about him, he kept reinventing himself.”

In 1989, at the age of 33, Cunningham died in a car accident in Spain. Getting the Third Degree aims “to bring him to life every night”. This isn’t the first time the writer has penned a play about a sportsman not around to see it staged. He wrote When the Eye Has Gone which told the story of cricketer Colin Milburn, and toured to Durham where its subject came from a few years ago. It was here Milburn’s family saw it and said “for 90 minutes they had their beloved Colin in front of them again, and that’s what we want to do with Laurie Cunningham, for people to see and be inspired by a remarkable life. We’d all like to think we’re not going to be forgotten,” he says, “Laurie Cunningham keeps cropping up, doesn’t he?” In 2016 English Heritage erected a blue plaque where he once lived in London, the following year a statue of him went up in Leyton’s Coronation Gardens, and in May another of him with Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson was unveiled in West Bromwich town centre. However elusive and softly spoken he may have been, “there’s something about Laurie Cunningham where he just won’t disappear, won’t go quietly.”

Kick it Out in association with Roughhouse Theatre and Live Wire Theatre presents:
Getting the Third Degree
South Street Arts Centre, Reading, 6 November

readingarts.com/south-street

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