Laurie Cunningham stood out from the start. He was the only black kid in the Regent’s Park Junior League’s under-14s representative team in his native north London. In 1974 he graduated to professional football with Orient in the old Second Division, becoming one of just 50 or so black players then plying their trade in the English Football League. At Brisbane Road, Cunningham’s prodigious pace and skill earned him rave notices, a teenage wonder weaving spells down Orient’s right wing.
In the mid-1970s Britain was headed for the economic doldrums and such conditions fermented the rise of the extreme right-wing National Front as a political and social force. The NF targeted football terraces – then the preserve of an increasingly disenfranchised white working class – as a fertile recruiting ground and their agitators became a familiar sight outside stadia on a Saturday afternoon, handing out leaflets and spreading bile. Soon enough, Cunningham and his Orient team-mate Bobby Fisher, a mixed race youth adopted into a Jewish family, were being summarily subjected to terrible racist abuse from rival fans, their every touch of the ball greeted with a chorus of boos and monkey chants. They couldn’t take corners or throw-ins for fear that supporters close to the pitch would grab or spit at them.
Cunningham’s wizardry also raised the ire of opposition defenders and he was marked for especially brutal treatment on the pitch as well. During his two seasons at Orient he became well-acquainted with the barbaric two-footed lunges that were a fixture of the game at the time. Slight and diffident, Cunningham looked as if a breath of wind would blow him over, but he had a core of steel. The hacks and kicks and the vile chanting, all of this served to strengthen his resolve and drive him to new heights. He’d pick himself up, dust himself down and resume taunting and teasing his opposing full back; showing him a glimpse of the ball and then spiriting it away in a flash.
Towards the end of the 1976/’77 season he left Orient for West Bromwich Albion, newly promoted to the top division, having been scouted by former West Brom striker Ronnie Allen to bring flair to an otherwise workmanlike side. Within a year Cunningham had become the first black footballer to represent England at under-21 level, negotiating his step up through the game’s ranks with a nonchalance born of supreme confidence in his own abilities. The following season he was joined at West Brom by Cyrille Regis, like him a young black lad from London and a strapping centre-forward spotted by Allen banging in goals for non-league Hayes.
By now Allen had been promoted from Chief Scout to manager of West Brom. He was a distant figure and a stickler for discipline, but he loved attacking footballers and goal-scorers most of all. Paired together under Allen’s tutelage, Cunningham and Regis thrived, driving West Brom towards the top of the First Division table and into contention for a place in Europe. Regis, who’d been working on a building site just a few months previous, was self-effacing and raw, but also strong and reliable. He worked as hard on the pitch as he had carrying bricks, earning the respect of his team-mates.
Cunningham was much more of an enigma to them. He was often a silent presence, shunning the banter and the card school on the bus to away games and practising yoga to keep supple. Since the average professional of the time existed on a diet of beer and fags, he might as well have come to them from Mars. By the by, Cunningham was also a temperamental performer, his mood on any given day dictating how he would play. His team-mates would only have to clock the look on his face on the morning of a match to know whether he would play well or not that afternoon.
Midway through the season, Allen quit to take up the offer of a high-paid coaching job in Saudi Arabia. His replacement was Ron Atkinson, who’d transformed lowly Cambridge United into a bright, adventurous side on the verge of promotion to the Second Division. A decade younger than Allen, Atkinson was an altogether more flamboyant character. He wore gaudy gold jewellery and christened himself ‘Big’ Ron. He turned up for his first day in charge of West Brom bedecked in an ankle-length black leather overcoat, looking like nothing so much as a Gestapo staff officer. It was Atkinson’s intention to shape West Brom into the most exciting team in the land.
Yet to begin with at least, the new manager struggled to get results. West Brom’s first game after his appointment was a 1-0 home defeat to Liverpool. This was followed by a second single-goal reversal at Middlesbrough on a frigid January afternoon and beneath a leaden north-east sky. If nothing else, the Middlesbrough encounter gave Atkinson a proper insight into the complicated character of his most mercurial player. Prior to leaving the West Midlands on the morning of the game, he’d berated Cunningham, Regis and goalkeeper Tony Godden for failing to turn up for the trip in a shirt and tie. Cunningham brooded on the long bus journey up to Middlesbrough, confiding to Godden that this was going to be one of those days when he was incapable of rousing himself to play.
He was as good as his word, being a spectral presence during the first 45 minutes of the match. Hugging tight to the touchline, he appeared unconnected to or unconcerned with what was going on elsewhere on the pitch. Not that much was happening, since the match was proving as drab and unappealing as the winter gloom. When the players trooped into the dressing room at half-time, Atkinson at once set about trying to goad them to action. Cunningham’s sour expression pulled him up short.
‘Listen, son,’ Atkinson told him, voice laced with sarcasm, ‘if you don’t fancy going out for the second half, get yourself in the bath.’ Cunningham responded, ‘Okay, boss.’ Then he stood up, stripped off and promptly disappeared to the showers.
‘The rest of us were a bit shocked,’ says full-back Derek Statham, ‘because we were about to go and battle on through the game. Laurie could be like that, a bit of a boy at times, and that incident summed up his character.’
Atkinson dropped Cunningham from the team for West Brom’s next six games, but eventually restored him to a starring role in his side. By then Atkinson had made his first signing for the club, recruiting his old Cambridge captain Brendon Batson. A cultured full-back, Batson was an emigrant from the Caribbean, like Regis, and had also grown up in north London. Within a year, and inspired by the all-girl American pop trio, Atkinson would brand Batson, Regis and Cunningham his ‘Three Degrees’ and their collective presence in a top-flight team would begin to change the face of British football.
However, Batson’s new team-mates initially viewed him with suspicion, surmising that he was Atkinson’s agent among them. It was also evident that he’d been bought to replace the veteran Paddy Mulligan, an eccentric but popular figure in the team. More often than not, players meet such a challenge with either grace or dull acceptance, but Mulligan seethed.
Atkinson immediately threw Batson to the lions, pitching him straight into the first team at Mulligan’s expense for a midweek match at Birmingham City. A storm raged in the Midlands that night, the rain coming down in torrents and a howling wind blowing through the creaking St Andrew’s ground. In the minutes before kick-off, Batson was suffering his own, quieter tumult. In the changing room under the main stand, he sat shrunken in his seat. He absorbed nothing of Atkinson’s pre-match team talk, but for the sight of the manager’s mouth opening and closing. He didn’t even sense Mulligan’s eyes boring into him. The Irishman was sitting directly across from him, right next to the door.
As the players filed out onto the pitch, Mulligan bid each of them good luck and best wishes. He met Batson with a warm smile. ‘All the best, Brendon,’ he said airily. ‘Hope you have a fucking nightmare.’