Q: Who was the first black player to play for England at senior international level? A: That would be Laurie Cunningham, the swaggeringly talented left winger who set alight the First Division at the end of the Seventies and went on to gain cult status at one of Europe’s biggest teams.
While achieving all of this, Cunningham became an iconic figure, inspiring a generation of young black players and helping to slowly turn the tide of racism in English football.
Plenty there for a story. No wonder that local companies RoughHouse and Live Wire Theatre have created a brand new play telling the Laurie Cunningham story. Getting the Third Degree, by local writer Dougie Blaxland, follows Cunningham’s career, zooming in on his rise to prominence with West Bromwich Albion in the late 1970s.
The play was commissioned by the charity Kick it Out to mark the 25th anniversary of its ongoing battle against discrimination in football. Incorporating 1970’s funk, soul and blues, contemporary commentary and social and political speeches, Getting The Third Degree is a powerful piece of theatre that vividly recreates a tense and troubled period in the history of football and the wider society.
As Dougie Blaxland explains, the play tells the story of Cunningham’s rise to fame and prominence as a player, on his journey from Leyton Orient via West Brom to Real Madrid (after a return to England, he later saw out his career in Spain, where he tragically died at the age of 33 after losing control of his car). However, it also focuses on the challenges that he and his generation of black footballers endured both on and off the pitch.
During the 1978/79 season, with Cunningham starring in a West Brom side that played exciting football and finished third in the League, the National Front orchestrated a campaign to ‘Make Britain White’ and targeted the team for due to its trio of successful black players: Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendan Batson.
The play also looks at the wider context of racism at the time. Laurie’s parents were part of the Windrush Generation who arrived in Britain in 1948, and were sometimes greeted with signs in lodgings and shops reading ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’. Enoch Powell, infamous for his anti-immigration ‘rivers of blood’ speech, served as MP for Wolverhampton, the neighbouring constituency to West Bromwich. “The speech is incorporated into the play along with the funk, soul, blues and r’n’b that Laurie danced to most nights of the week,” Dougie explains.
“Laurie was an astonishing young man who wrote poetry, painted and talked about philosophy,” he continues. “He was also a brilliant dancer and won money most nights of the week for his performances in night clubs. Today he would have won Strictly Come Dancing.
“The great irony of his dancing, though, was that whilst he believed that it gave him the elasticity and fitness that set him apart on the pitch, it also meant he was late for training on a regular basis. The money he won at dancing paid for his lateness fines.”
What role did Cunningham play in the integration of black players into British football, and their acceptance by fans? “Every black ex-player I interviewed, including Garth Crooks, John Barnes and Ian Wright, said that Laurie Cunningham was the man who inspired them,” Dougie reveals. Crooks, the Tottenham star-turned-football pundit who forged his career just a couple of years behind Laurie, notes: “Laurie played football with the swagger of Ian Wright, the ability of John Barnes the style and panache of Thierry Henry.
“He brought excitement, ingenuity, fashion and flair to a game that was often dull. However, far more importantly than that, he brought hope and inspiration to a whole generation of young black footballers.”
Getting the Third Degree opens at the Wardrobe Theatre on Oct 22, and then tours nationally. For more info, visit thewardrobetheatre.com/livetheatre/getting-the-third-degree