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Kicking off this year’s Archway with Words festival

The N19 literary event includes a talk by Dermot Kavanagh about his book on Laurie Cunningham, the first black footballer to play professionally for England

20 September, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Dermot Kavanagh, left, and Laurie Cunningham

He glided across the muddy football pitches as if his feet were not touching the ground and with the ball magnetically stuck to his toes. He swerved past hefty tackles, a marked man. And he let the vile racism he faced from crowds and opposing teams bounce off him.

Archway-­born Laurie Cun­ningham was one of the most graceful players of the Beautiful Game England has ever produced but was also but also a trailblazer: a second generation immigrant who dazzled in the old First Division, earned a big-money move to Real Madrid before having his career cut short through injury – and ultimately his life cut short in a tragic car accident.

His story is now set to be told by writer Dermot Kavanagh at this month’s Archway With Words festival – the N19-based literary event that starts this weekend, and pulls in a wide range of brilliant authors to discuss their works.

Dermot Kavanagh’s biography of Laurie Cunningham

Dermot, who lives in Holloway, became interested in Laurie’s story through his work at the Sunday Times picture desk, he told Review. He came across a photograph of Cunningham dressed up in a suit and wearing a fedora hat and the memories of the player came rushing back. It prompted him to research Cunningham’s life, interview friends and family, and write the first definitive biography of a man who rose to the top in an era of ingrained racism within our national sport.

His mother Mavis and his father Elias were from Jamaica. They settled in the Finsbury Park area in the mid to late 50s, his mother becoming a manager at a clothing firm and his father was a skilled metal worker. Laurie grew up in Archway and showed a brilliant aptitude for a range of sports.

“I never saw him play live but I recalled seeing him on the TV,” says Dermot. “I was about 12 and he made such a big impression on me.”

Laurie played alongside Cyrille Regis and Brendan Batson at and they were dubbed the Three Degrees, as the media sought to label the black Englishmen plying their trade at the top of the game.

“He was such an exciting, young player and then he left play for Real Madrid,” remembers Dermot. “It was almost unheard of – Kevin Keegan had gone to Hamburg, but otherwise there were virtually no English players abroad – and not for a club of the size of Real.”

Cunningham’s youth was typical of any football-loving boy living in north London. He played at Regent’s Park for a team called Highgate North Hill. Aged 14, when his talent became clear, he went to train at Arsenal two nights a week. But the strict regime did not suit him and he was released aged 16.

“He was seen as being as bit flash and unreliable,” says Dermot. “But his Highgate coach, a social worker called Bob Cottingham, knew Laurie had what it took to play professionally. He contacted a friend of his, the Leyton Orient manager George Petchey. They signed him up and his career took off.”

After playing for the Clapton-based club, he earned a move to West Brom, and set the league alight. In 1977, Cunningham became the first black player to play for the England under-21 side and his success made him a figurehead for the next generation of black British players.

But as Dermot shows in his book, there was more to Laurie than football. He was interested in music, fashion, dancing – and came to epitomise a new multicultural London, at ease with itself.

“Laurie was good at keeping his cool under intense provocation,” adds Dermot. “He would never react. He would always walk away and keep letting his football do the talking. He was helped by teammates – he played with a big, strong Irishman called Tony Grealish who became a great friend to him.

“He helped keep his spirits up when the crowds would be throwing bananas on the pitch and shouting abuse.”

Different Class: The Story of Laurie Cunningham – Football, Fashion, Funk. By Dermot Kavanagh, Penguin, £20
• Dermot Kavanagh talks about his book on September 29, 1pm, £4, at Archway Methodist Church. To book:

Among other highlights of this year’s Archway with Words festival:

Professor Jim Al-Khalili

Theoretical physicist Professor Jim Al-Khalili talks about The Artificial Intelligence Revolution (September 25, Archway Methodist Church, 6.30pm, £10/£7, )

Meera Syal and Tanika Gupta

• Meera Syal and Tanika Gupta are ‘Queens of Drama’ in conversation about writing for the stage and screen, comedy acting adaptation (September 26, Archway Methodist Church, 7pm, £10/£7)

Christie Watson

In the year we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the NHS, former nurse Christie Watson discusses her book The Language of Kindness (September 29, Archway Methodist Church, 3.30pm, £5, nurses can claim a free ticket).

• Archway with Words runs from September 22-29.
It features authors, scientists, historians, biographers, poets, musicians, playwrights, film-makers and this year, a local history project.

Full details of all events, including times and venues, at


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