Football’s anti-racism charity Kick It Out has commissioned a new play about the life of Laurie Cunningham, the former West Brom, Real Madrid and England winger who inspired a generation of black players.
Having first made his name with Orient, Cunningham moved to West Brom in 1977 and linked up with two other black stars, Brendon Batson and Cyrille Regis.
The trio – dubbed ‘the Three Degrees’ after the American soul group – helped the midlands club finish third in Division One but were often subjected to appalling racist abuse.
Cunningham handled himself with enormous dignity and in 1979 became the first Englishman, and black player, to sign for Real Madrid, where he won a league title and two Spanish cups.
He also became only the second black player to be capped by England at any level when he was selected for the under-21s in 1977 – he scored on his debut against Scotland – and would go on to win six full caps.
That figure would have been much higher only for injuries to affect his peak years but he had just helped Rayo Vallecano get promoted to La Liga when he died in a car crash in Spain in 1989, aged only 33.
Now, his remarkable life will be turned into hard-hitting drama by award-winning playwright Dougie Blaxland to mark Kick It Out’s 25th anniversary.
Called ‘Getting the Third Degree’, the Roughhouse Theatre production will explore how he, Batson and Regis triumphed over racism through their brilliance and bravery.
Speaking on behalf of the family, his niece Rhodene Cunningham said: “He was a very special man loved by us all and we hope his pioneering story will be an inspiration to everyone who comes to see the production.”
Timed to coincide with Black History Month, the play’s UK tour will start in Bristol on October 22 and finish in Brighton on November 16.
As part of the project, Kick It Out and Blaxland have produced an education pack for use in secondary schools and the play will feature music, football chants and political speeches from the era.
In a statement, Kick It Out’s chief executive Roisin Wood said: “In an organisation committed to changing deeply-embedded attitudes you cannot simply repeat the same message in the same way year after year.
“The more fans, followers of football and members of the public we can encourage to see this exciting production, the greater its impact will be.”
Blaxland and Roughhouse Theatre have already produced three plays with sporting themes: ‘Hands Up for Jonny Wilkinson’s Right Boot’ commissioned by the Rugby Football Union for the 2015 World Cup, ‘When The Eye Has Gone’ for the Professional Cricketers’ Association as part of its Mind Matters campaign and ‘The Long Walk Back’, the story of cricketer Chris Lewis’s fall from grace.