West Brom’s Laurie Cunningham blazed a trail for black footballers in England in the late 1970s, facing vicious abuse from the terraces and on the streets.
At a time when racism is firmly back in the spotlight, the England international’s battle against prejudice has been brought vividly to life in a play that tells the story of his life.
Cunningham was part of a trio of black footballers at West Brom labelled “The Three Degrees” by then-manager Ron Atkinson, along with Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson.
Named after the American female vocal group, they have since been immortalised in a statue in West Bromwich, in the English Midlands.
Cunningham was just 33 years old when he was killed in a car crash in Madrid in 1989 while Regis died from a heart attack in 2018, leaving Batson as the only surviving member.
The stage play, “Getting The Third Degree”, was commissioned by Kick it Out to mark the 25th anniversary of the organisation’s battle against discrimination in football.
Written by Dougie Blaxland, a nom-de-plume of playwright James Graham-Brown,it tells the story of Cunningham’s rise to stardom and explores how he and his two teammates faced racial abuse and physical threats often orchestrated by the extreme right-wing group the National Front.
Cunningham, just the second black player to represent England, played for West Brom from 1977 to 1979 before moving to mighty Real Madrid.
But his high profile did not protect him from prejudice.
Graham-Brown tells the bizarre story of how Cunningham was leaving a nightclub with his white girlfriend Nikki Brown when they were subjected to abuse by a group of men.
“He (Cunningham) flattened two of them before she (Nikki) said ‘Laurie let’s go’. Then one of them had the gall to ask ‘are you Laurie Cunningham?” he told AFP.
“He replied in the affirmative and he said ‘wow, we love you’ and, adding insult to injury, asked if he had any tickets for the West Brom v Valencia game the following week.”
– Bullet in the post –
Powerful striker Regis was also at the receiving end of chilling abuse, getting a bullet in the post after he was selected to play for England.
More than four decades later, racism still casts a shadow over English and European football, with Manchester City star Raheem Sterling among the players to speak out on the issue.
Graham-Brown says despite the current problems blighting the game, racism was “more explicit” in the late 1970s.
“The West Brom v Manchester United game at Old Trafford (December 30, 1978) when West Brom won 5-3, every time Laurie got the ball he was jeered,” said Graham-Brown.
“Gerald Sinstadt, the match commentator, became the first of his profession to openly mention racism.”
Those incidents came at a particularly volatile time politically.
“The 1978/79 season was the winter of discontent (there were mass strikes and disruption) and the National Front (far-right party) targeted those three players,” he said.
“Regis received a bullet in the post and Laurie’s flat was set on fire (a petrol bomb was thrown into his house). They were spat at and attacked.
“What was remarkable was none of them retaliated. They rose above the abuse and attacks.”
– ‘Out of order’ –
Cunningham’s niece Rhodene Cunningham said her uncle’s style was more conciliatory than confrontational.
“Laurie took a different stance to Raheem Sterling but then there was no social media to speak out on in those days,” she told AFP.
“Laurie preferred to confront it by inviting those who were racist to ‘come and sit down with me and we will talk about it’.”
Rhodene said the current racism problem runs deeper than black players being targeted from the stands.
“I still hear of young players experiencing racism having players sidle up to them and whisper comments in their ear,” she said.
“They say that nothing is done about it, at the very most a slap on the wrist This is unacceptable and places great stress on your mental health.”
She believes that positive change in attitudes can only begin to come about if there is change at the top.
“I think part of the solution of the problem is there needs to be more diversity at the top of the sport,” she said.
“There should be more black managers or CEOs of clubs, that would be a sign of progress.”
The play had its first outing in the October and November of last year when it toured more than 20 venues in England and Wales to positive reviews.