Laurie Cunningham: football from Market Road to Real Madrid

6 Jan

Everyone has a story. This GUEST POST from Dermot Kavanagh, Sports Picture Editor of the Sunday Times, is a fantastic summary of Archway-born footballer Laurie Cunningham’s life. Few people know about Laurie, but he’s probably the greatest black footballer the UK has ever produced – signed by Real Madrid for £1 million in 1979. Dermot’s plan for 2016 is to crowdfund a book about Laurie Cunningham’s amazing legacy for England’s footballers. It’s 28 per cent funded, so let’s see if Islington Faces readers can help, see how here.

mag Mar.76

Sunday Times Magazine front cover March 1976 asks if Laurie Cunningham (who grew up in Archway) will be the first “coloured” player to play for England.

Laurie Cunningham was born and bred in Islington and it was in the borough’s streets and parks that he learnt to play football. Many people believe he is the greatest black footballer this country has ever produced, yet his name is largely forgotten today which is curious as he achieved great things during a period when football was blighted with explicit racism, when monkey chants, extreme verbal abuse and bananas thrown on to the pitch were seen as part of the game.

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April 1977 England under 21 pic -the first black player to represent England at any level.

Laurie Cunningham from Archway made football history as the first black player to represent England when he was played for England under 21s in April 1977.

His story is a radical one.

  • Laurie was the first black footballer to play for England at any level when he represented the under 21s in a match against Scotland in April 1977  – and scored the winning goal.
  • Just two years later he signed for Real Madrid, the world’s most famous club, in a deal worth close to £1 million becoming the first Englishman to do so.
  • In between he formed part of a pioneering trio of black footballers* at West Bromwich Albion – dubbed the Three Degrees by boss Ron Atkinson – who changed people’s perceptions with their swagger and glamour. They proved to managers and fans that black players could be professional and effective, and in the case of Cunningham, succeed at the highest level.
  • He was killed in a car crash on the outskirts of Madrid in 1989.
laurie boy

Laurie Cunningham as a boy (date unknown).

Born in Islington
His story begins in Archway. He was born to Jamaican parents on 8 March 1956 in St Mary’s (now Whittington) Hospital on Highgate Hill. The family lived in shared rooms at Brookside Place N19, not far from the stark hospital buildings. His parents Mavis and Elias both worked locally.

Mavis, who arrived from Kingston as a teenager, had an aunt in Caledonian Road and found work at The Bristol Laundry on Holloway Road. His father Elias, an apprentice jockey back in Jamaica, worked as a metal moulder and engraver for a company on Amwell Street near the Angel. The family moved to Westbourne Road in lower Holloway for a brief period before settling in Lancaster Road, Finsbury Park in the mid ’60s.

Cunningham attended Stroud Green Primary and Highgate Wood Secondary Schools where his outstanding athletic ability quickly stood out and his speed and balance marked him out as something special. He played football for the district, London Schoolboys and a team called Highgate North Hill who went on an adventurous tour of Vienna in 1968. At just 12-years-old Cunningham was the star player and shone against the youth teams of professional outfits such as Rapid Vienna and Fortuna 05.

As a proven match winner his services were in demand as a “boots for hire” on the pitches at Market Road in Islington where the promise of a new pair of boots (or £5 cash) bought a guaranteed goal scorer for teams in need of a win. He played often for adult teams as a youngster, particularly Greek and Turkish ones, which would bet large amounts on the outcome of matches.

soul boy

Laurie Cunningham in soul boy garb – bespoke peg trousers paired with flat dancing shoes. c.1976.

He’s got soul
His interests were not just confined to football, he liked music too – he taught himself to play the piano as a boy – but most of all loved to dance.

By his late teens he was a leading light among a group of young black Londoners who found expression and identity in the burgeoning inner-London soul scene. The scene that grew out of pub back rooms and Soho dives had a dress code which included bespoke Great Gatsby suits, gangster hats and two-tone shoes, (referencing the zoot suits and hats of their parents’ era). These working-class dandies helped shape the dance music culture that spread across London and beyond and was where DJs Norman Jay and Jazzie B first started.

Fastidious about clothes, Laurie had suits made to measure by East End tailors or picked up vintage items in the flea market at Camden Passage in Angel where original 1940s suits and accessories could be bought from piles on the pavement. His elder brother Keith, a reggae man to his soul boy, was a member of the Sir Power Sound System from Holloway whose rallying cry “Sir Power on the Hour” helped pack out the Friday night dances held at Archway Methodist Hall.

Laurie’s London

  • Caledonian clock tower in Caledonian Park. On one side is Islington Tennis Centre and Haywards Adventure Playgorund. On the other North Road with the Gower School, Drovers Centre run by Islington Age UK and fabulous Pleasance Theatre.

    Caledonian clock tower in Caledonian Park opposite Market Road pitches.

    He would take part in kickabouts as a boy in Finsbury Park where weekend games began at noon and lasted until dusk in the summer. He also played at Market Road pitches and Highgate Woods.

  • Sir Power Sound System played at Archway Methodist Hall and numerous blues parties in Finsbury Park. Local rivals included Fatman out of Tottenham and Chicken in Stoke Newington.
  • Second-hand 40s clothes and post-war utility marked items were particularly prized, bought at Camden Passage, stalls at Camden Market or Petticoat Lane in the East End. Petticoat Lane was also good for finding flat-soled shoes for dancing.
  • Clubs were mostly in the West End, Crackers on Wardour Street or upstairs at Ronnie Scott’s. In north London Bluesville in Wood Green, the Tottenham Royal and the Bird’s Nest in Muswell Hill were all good for funk music.

By the age of 14 Cunningham had been spotted by scouts for Arsenal and was invited to train at Highbury twice a week. His team mates included future Gunners great Liam Brady, but, as was so often the case with black youths he didn’t progress beyond schoolboy. Arsenal let him go saying he was “not the right material” at the age of 16.

His manager at Highgate North Hill was determined to find him a club rather than see his young charge walk away from the game and landed him a trial at lowly Leyton Orient where manager George Petchey signed him on the spot, commenting “I’d never seen a 16-year-old like him before, he could do everything.”

It was at Leyton Orient that Cunningham rose to national prominence, but it was after moving to West Bromwich Albion for two years and forming part of the ground breaking trio of black players. Then in a stunning move he joined Real Madrid in June 1979.

At Real Madrid he won the League and Cup Double in his first season and reached the European Cup Final in 1981 where Madrid lost to Liverpool.

Injury curtailed his career and a recurring knee problem, that never seemed to fully heal, robbed him of his electrifying pace. Loaned out to various clubs across Europe but never settling anywhere for long he struck a melancholy figure in later years when he commented “Have you noticed how we have all dropped out of favour with England? And there are no black managers in the game. I wonder why? I don’t think black players have had a fair deal over the years.”

By 1988 he was back in the Spanish capital playing for Rayo Vallecano a second division team with a strong left wing tradition whom he helped gain promotion by scoring the goal that got them up. Although he only played one season for them his presence remains to this day in fans’ anti-racist banners that feature his image beneath the words, “Amo Rayo, odia racismo”, (love Rayo, hate racism).

On the eve of the new season he was killed in a car crash on 15 July 1989, aged 33 years.

real v barca

Shoot cover 2 August 1980 – Laurie Cunningham playing for Real Madrid.

Rewriting history
There is a growing awareness about the importance of Laurie Cunningham.

He is a pivotal figure in modern black British history who deserves wider recognition not just in north London but nationally. His talent and temperament he helped pave the way for a whole generation of black footballers. His brother Keith puts it best when he says: “My little brother was the greatest. He made it for all those black people, all those players, and he turned the crowd around. They loved him.”

Dermot Kavanagh is crowdfunding his biography of Laurie Cunningham, to be called Different Class: Fashion, Football & Funk, The Story of Laurie Cunningham on the site There are varying levels you can choose to support and each person who pledges will get their name printed in the book, see how to help here.

The trio of black footballers, dubbed the Three Degrees (nicknamed after the Philadelphia female soul trio topping the charts at the time), were Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson and Cyrille Regis who played for West Bromwich Albion in the late 1970s.

Enjoyed this interview?
Read more Islington Faces interviews about Arsenal, see:

Samir Singh, Arsenal in the community

Paul Matz, founder of Arsenal Independent Supporters’ Association

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via at Thank you.

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This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola







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