History came full circle on Saturday 12th October 2013 when a commemorative plaque was unveiled at Leyton Orient Football Club in east London in honour of Laurie Cunningham, one of England’s first high-profile Black footballers.
Organised by Jak Beula (who has previously arranged plaques across London for the likes of Bob Marley and Claudia Jones) the characteristic circular blue plaque was unveiled by members of the Cunningham family and fixed to an outside wall of the Leyton Orient stadium 39 years after Laurie played there.
In 1970s England, where violent racism was a common feature of the streets and on the terraces of the football stadia and where racial discrimination was a common feature across all aspects of society (including sport), a pioneer emerged in the form of Laurie Cunningham.
Laurie Cunningham was born in Archway, north London in the 1950s where his parents had settled after migrating from Jamaica. Then at age 18, despite the racial abuse he suffered from white spectators at matches, he kick-started his professional football career and stepped into the history books.
After trying out for Arsenal FC, he began playing for Leyton Orient in Division Two as one of the few Black players in the English leagues in 1974. Three years later he transferred to West Bromwich Albion in Division One and joined two fellow players Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson.
Three Black players in the same team at the same time were a wonderful sight on British TV screens in the 1970s and the threesome, as well as becoming great friends, became known as the “Three Degrees”. That nickname mirrored the then chart-topping USA singing group “The Three Degrees” who the footballers also met.
In 1971 Benjamin Odeje set the record as the first Black player to ever play for England at any level in football by playing against Northern Ireland for England Schoolboys. But Laurie then set his own record, in 1977, as the first Black player in the higher level England Under-21 squad, scoring a goal in his first match (against Scotland).
Then in 1979, a quarter of a century before David Beckham, Laurie set a new record by becoming the first English footballer to play for Real Madrid – and the first Black player ever to make an international transfer.
Laurie Cunningham broke through many barriers and was an inspiration to great numbers of people but his life was, tragically, cut short due to a car accident in 1989 aged 33. Laurie’s pioneering, resilient and flamboyant life was the subject of an ITV documentary “First Among Equals” in March 2013.
The plaque was unveiled on the day of the 39th anniversary of Laurie’s debut at the Leyton Orient stadium and reads: “Laurie Cunningham 1956-1989, football legend, pioneering England international, played for Leyton Orient FC 1974-1977”.
Amongst others, Laurie’s previous “Three Degrees” team-mates Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson spoke at the plaque ceremony in tribute to his impact on English football, in recognition to his challenge to racism in the sport and in acknowledgement to his personal support and camaraderie to them. It was also announced that a statue of the three players is to be erected by West Bromwich Albion in 2014.
Laurie was part of the FA Cup winning team with Wimbledon FC in 1988 and suitably, after the plaque unveiling, a match was played in the Leyton Orient stadium against MK Dons (the name for Wimbledon FC since 2004). In Laurie’s honour, Leyton Orient won 2-1.
The life of Laurie Cunningham lives on in his achievements and in his commemorative plaque.