As an under-21, Laurie Cunningham (featured in Jocks&Nerds Issue 14) was the first black footballer to play for England. Later, he was only the second non-Spanish player to be signed by Real Madrid. On the pitch he was praised for his balletic grace, earning a standing ovation in in 1980 for his part in Madrid's 2-0 victory against Barcelona. Away from football, he was a keen dancer and a dandy celebrated for his style. In 1989, at the age of 33, he died in a car crash.
In recent years, the player whom Spanish manager Vincente del Bosque dubbed “as good as Christiano Ronaldo” has been enjoying rewened attention. In 2013 ITV produced a documentary on his life, and last year Park Theatre hosted an exhibition.
That show’s curator, Dermot Kavanagh, is now preparing a biography of Cunningham. Titled Different Class, it covers both his career and his importance as one of the first black footballers to rise to the peak of European football. The book is up for crowdfunding on Unbound
The seed for Different Class came when Kavanagh – the sports picture editor for the Sunday Times – discovered a 1975 photograph of a 19-year-old Cunningham in a 1940-style suit and fedora. “I became intrigued by the Gatsby suit picture first and found out he grew up near to where I live so it started as a London story that just interested me. I thought he should be better known.”
The book draws upon a multitude of interviewees, showing how Cunningham was influential both within and without football. “Obviously a lot of black players cite him as important”, says Kavanagh. “He seemed to capture the imagination[...], primarily through his graceful playing style and supreme skill.” Different Class will see fellow players Mark Bright and Bobby Fisher share space with London-based musicians Jazzie B, Don Letts and Jah Wobble, along with 70s fashion trailblazer Lloyd Johnson.
Different Class should confirm Cunningham’s significance beyond the game. As Kavanagh concludes, “he only played six times for England so was hardly a runaway success and he had problems with consistency throughout his career. But his significance to those who saw him, either contemporaries or the generation that followed, was very important. He is well-remembered at Real Madrid too. He showed anything was possible for black players by playing at the very top.”