Footballer Laurie Cunningham honoured with blue plaque

English Heritage pays tribute to West Brom and Real Madrid star, the first black man to play for England in a competitive match

English Heritage has pledged to increase the number of black and Asian nominees for blue plaques as it prepares to unveil one in north London for the late footballer Laurie Cunningham.

The London blue plaque scheme has been running for 150 years, yet only 33 of the more than 900 are dedicated to black and Asian figures. That will change, English Heritage has said, announcing the creation of a working group to look back over history and find worthy candidates.

Anna Eavis, English Heritage’s curatorial director, said history was no longer seen as just “kings and queens, prime ministers, foreign secretaries and generals”. She said: “If you are looking for history to fulfil a much broader potential, about how we used to live or why things are the way they are, you have to look beyond those established and conventional sources in the documentation and that can be harder.”

Cunningham at Leyton Orient, prior to the 1974-75 season.
Cunningham at Leyton Orient, prior to the 1974-75 season. Photograph: PA

The working group will be led by the cultural historian Gus Casely-Hayford who said London had always been an ethnic melting pot. “We are linked through language, culture, political alliance and economic partnership to every part of the world,” he said. “And people from places that we have touched have found their way here to not just make London their home but to make London and this country what it is. We want to celebrate that rich, complex, sometimes difficult history through the lives of those that truly made it.”

It was not until 1954 that the first plaque honouring a notable figure of minority ethnic origin was installed. That was Mahatma Gandhi. The majority since then have emerged after English Heritage took over the scheme in 1986 and most of those were from a push in the early 2000s. They include Crimean war nurse Mary Seacole and Chinese writer Lao She.

Eavis said any nominations would still have to be judged on rigorous criteria which included being regarded as eminent in their profession, making an exceptional impact and having lived in London for a significant time.

Cunningham ticks all those boxes and more, and a blue plaque for the footballer will be unveiled on Wednesday, on the exterior wall of 73 Lancaster Road in Stroud Green, London, the Haringey house where Cunningham grew up and lived in for more than a decade.

Born in 1956 to first-generation immigrants from Jamaica, Cunningham became the first black footballer to play for England in a competitive international match and was the first Englishman to play for Real Madrid when they bought him from West Bromwich Albion for the then eye-watering sum of £950,000.

His first professional team was Leyton Orient – after turning down an offer from the Ballet Rambert – but it was as part of Ron Atkinson’s successful WBA side that he became a true star. Uniquely for the time, the team had three black regular first-team players: Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendan Batson – or the Three Degrees as Atkinson nicknamed them.

Cunningham was a great footballer and true pioneer, forced to contend with racial prejudice and vile abuse from both fans and fellow professionals. As well as his artistry and grace on the ball he was admired for his innovative approach to training, using both yoga and dance to improve his technique and stamina. He also taught Peter Reid how to peel a king prawn.

Cunningham’s career reached a high in 1988 when he was a second-half substitute for Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang in their surprise FA Cup final win over Liverpool. A year later he was killed in a car crash near Madrid, aged just 33.


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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