The story of Laurie Cunningham, who became the first black footballer to play for England at any level when he was selected for an under-21 international against Scotland in 1977, is to be told in a new ITV documentary.
A watershed moment in both British sport and culture, ‘First Among Equals: The Laurie Cunningham Story’ reflects on the ground-breaking career of the first black footballer to pull on an England shirt, whose impact on the game continues to be felt decades after he was killed in a car accident aged just 33.
Featuring interviews with Vincente Del Bosque, Cyrille Regis, Viv Anderson, Peter Reid, Ian Wright, John Barnes, Paul Ince and many more, the documentary will be broadcast on Wednesday, March 6th at 10.35pm on ITV, and at 11.05pm on STV and UTV.
This ITV documentary the story of the first player to play for both Manchester United and Real Madrid, whose rise from Leyton Orient to the Bernabeu broke new ground.
Cunningham’s unique story inspired a generation of young black players not only to believe they belonged in the country, but that they could represent it.
He overcame racist attitudes within the game during the era he emerged and abuse from the terraces to become the first black footballer to pull on an England shirt, when he represented his country at under-21 level.
More than four years in the making by brothers Ben and Gabe Turner of production company Fulwell 73, the documentary features contributions from Cunningham’s family members and key figures in his career, former team-mates and best friends including Cyrille Regis and Brendan Batson.
The programme is given exclusive access to Laurie’s mother’s scrapbook of press cuttings about her son, which indicate the level of adulation he received, his reputation as a top footballer and as a charismatic figure, and uses archive material as well as anecdotes from people and players close to Laurie to depict his beginnings at Leyton Orient and at West Brom.
It also includes the thoughts of Spain manager Vicente del Bosque, plus a generation of black players that he helped to inspire, including Paul Ince, John Barnes, Les Ferdinand, Ian Wright and Mark Bright, who remember him as their hero.
Former West Brom and Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson also pays his own unique tribute.
Speaking to ITV, John Barnes says Laurie was a player ahead of his time from when he first emerged in the 1970s – which may explain why he received only six England caps.
“He was probably ahead of his time in English football in terms of the way he played, not just as a black English player,” Barnes said.
“I suppose that Laurie didn’t really have the impact for England that he should have had.
“For a winger to have played with the flamboyance that he did, also to come in field and do what he did, he was like Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I mean, this Fancy Dan with all of these tricks and skills, everybody loves that now but Laurie was doing that back in the ’70s.
“He was standing on the ball, and rolling his foot over the ball, but he wasn’t appreciated because that wasn’t what the good old English players do. We just get stuck in.”
The programme also explores the social impact of Laurie’s role as one of the legendary ‘Three Degrees’ at West Brom alongside Regis and Batson.
It was the first time taht an English team had fielded a trio of black footballers in an era when black players routinely faced torrents of racist abuse from the terraces in England.
Former Leyton Orient team-mate Bobby Fisher tells the ITV documentary: “Laurie wasn’t the type of guy who would accept it, he would want to give it back… I think he learned to get back at them in his own way, which was on the pitch.”
Cyrille Regis, who says Laurie acted as a mentor to him at West Brom, explains that when Laurie was picked for the England under-21 team, it was a major step forward in race relations within football.
He says: “It’s a real milestone in history – a black guy playing for England. Looking back on it, it was enormous.
“He was a flamboyant footballer, great on the pitch. He helped break down barriers, he helped inspire a lot of black players to play football and made a lot of black people proud that there’s a black player playing for England.”
The documentary also explores the implications of Laurie signing for Real Madrid, where his career was later to be afflicted by a series of injuries.
Increasingly dogged by injuries in his time at Real, Laurie went on loan to Manchester United and later played for several clubs across Europe, constantly hoping to reignite his career, but tragically he was killed in a car crash in Madrid in July 1989. Cunningham was just 33.
Ron Atkinson tells the programme: “The last time I saw Laurie we went to Real Madrid to watch a game at the Bernabeu and all through the game, he kept saying “Next year I will come back and show them what they are missing.”
He never did – but 24 years after his death, for his friend and team-mate Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham’s memory lives on.
“He is ever-present to me, he is always around me, because everyone remembers that time. He is forever at the forefront of my life.”
Now, as the issue of racism within football is high on the game’s current agenda, this programme is a timely reflection on the social impact of Laurie’s rise during an era when black players routinely faced torrents of racist abuse from the terraces in England.
Wednesday 6th March
First Among Equals: The Laurie Cunningham Story10.35pm-11.35pm – ITV / ITV HD 11.05pm-12.05am – STV / UTV