In 1978 West Bromwich Albion became the first British club to field three black players at once. Paul Rees tells the story of how they changed football forever…
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.
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