Racism was rife when Laurie was at peak of powers

Book review - Alan Aherne

Different Class - The Story Of Laurie Cunningham
Different Class - The Story Of Laurie Cunningham

If you're browsing in the sports section of The Book Centre any time soon, chances are that the cover of 'Different Class - The Story Of Laurie Cunningham' will catch your eye.

Just look at the illustration below and I'm sure you'll agree. Even by the often garish fashion standards set in the late 1970s, it's fair to say that this talented footballer really stood out from the crowd.

Yet, as this engrossing biography reveals, he wasn't the type of person to make friends easily, and colleagues didn't gravitate naturally towards him in a dressing-room.

That may seem difficult to credit given his stand-out garb in the accompanying cover photograph, but Laurie Cunningham was a complex personality and that's what makes Dermot Kavanagh's book so interesting.

The Londoner was born in 1956, the son of Jamaican immigrants, and he expressed himself throughout his teenage years via a love of music, fashion and football.

While reggae was the sound of choice for most people from his background, Laurie was a soul devotee and a dance lover who took part in competitions in his time away from the playing fields.

Indeed, he was so fleet of foot and graceful with a ball at his feet that a ballet company director once sought his services after seeing him in action.

A one-off personality, he was rejected by first club Arsenal in the early seventies because they grew tired of his constant late arrivals for training.

His career blossomed at a lower level with Orient, and the wider sporting world started to take notice after a lucrative move to the midlands with West Brom who were managed by our own Johnny Giles at the time.

However, his career really flourished when big Ron Atkinson arrived to take the hot seat at the Hawthorns, with Cunningham one of the club's affectionately-labelled 'Three Degrees' along with full-back Brendan Batson and powerful striker Cyrille Regis.

A gifted winger, the subject of this book became the first black man to play professionally for England at Under-21 level in 1977, and he was only beaten to that accolade with the Senior team by Viv Anderson.

Racism was sadly part and parcel of football during that dark era, and it's sad to read that Cunningham's finest hour on the English club scene - a 5-3 win for West Brom against Manchester United at Old Trafford - was marred from start to finish by monkey chants from the home crowd every time he got the ball on the wing.

It was quite a common occurrence for bananas to be throw onto the field in games involving black players, and Cunningham bore the brunt of that abuse given his close proximity to the stands.

He became the first Englishman to join Real Madrid in a big money move which sadly didn't work out despite one stunning performance in an El Clasico win against arch-rivals Barcelona.

His initial spell in Spain was marred by a series of injuries, and the breakdown of a long-term relationship didn't help matters either.

One oft-forgotten aspect of Cunningham's career is that he came on for the Wimbledon crazy gang in their shock 1-0 FA Cup final win over Liverpool in 1988.

He was back in Spain the following year, and it was there that he sadly died at the age of 33 in a car accident.

Laurie's tale will keep you entertained, a classy footballer in an era when the treatment of black footballers left a lot to be desired.

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