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Preview: West Bromwich Albion V Liverpool 26 September

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I know, we only played them the other day. Nonetheless, here we are, and in a different competition this time, the newly monikered League Cup. Other more conventional media may be contractually obliged to call it by the sponsor name but we’re not them so screw that.

The last game was best forgotten about and this will be an opportunity for the two clubs to see how their respective new managers will treat this competition, the less attractive sister of the English Football Family. Last year with Swansea in the second round, Brendan Rodgers made nine changes to his line up and went down 3 1 to League Two side Shrewsbury on a night he described as his “most disappointing in football”. Glad he got that out of the way.

Our more fresh faced fans may not realise this but West Brom are one of the heavyweights of English football. One of the founder members of the League, they have five FA Cup wins as well as a League and many other trinkets. They have also spawned some greats of the game, including England Uber Captain Bryan Robson and cult hero Jeff Astle.

But I want to tell you all the story of a trailblazer named Laurie Cunningham.

Laurie was a Londoner, the son of a Jamaican jockey, and a tricky, diminutive winger cum striker who kicked off his career with Leyton Orient (after Arsenal rejected him). There he caught the eye of Johnny Giles, then manager of WBA, culminating in a move. Black players (and Laurie was one) did not have an easy time of it then, but Laurie had company at West Brom, with Cyrille Regis and Brendan Batson. When Fat Ron Atkinson took over the following year, he named the trio The Three Degrees (after the all black/female hitmakers). Fat Ron, eh? Here’s a quote.

--- Quote --- "At that time, for a short spell I reckon we were the best team in Europe," Atkinson told BBC Sport.
"We didn't put any restrictions on Laurie - I just told him to get the ball at his feet and go and do damage with it.

"I had Bryan Robson for years and at Atletico Madrid I had Paulo Futre, who was a European footballer of the year, but Laurie could live with any of those."
--- End quote ---

Cyrille Regis on Laurie.

--- Quote --- Regis still takes great pride in what they did together at West Brom, silencing the racist crowds that were commonplace in English football in the 1970s.

"Players like Justin Fashanu, Luther Blissett and Garth Crooks were coming through at that time but what happened at West Brom was radical, three black guys in one side was incredible," he told BBC Sport. "There were lots of stereotypes then about black players - that we couldn't handle the cold weather, that we were all flair and didn't have the right temperament - and when you've been brought up in London in that time, as we were, you certainly know you're different. "We couldn't do a Cantona and jump into the crowd, so instead you thought 'I'll hurt you with my ability'.

"There was a massive sea change among managers too, people like Graham Taylor, David Pleat and John Bond. They said 'these black guys can play'."
--- End quote ---

Laurie’s time at West Brom was a distinct success, and in April 1977 he became the first black player to play for England at any level, against Scotland in an Under 21 international. Two years later, he became the first black player to play in a senior competitive game for England, against Wales. Viv Anderson, the elegant Forest right back, had cracked the mould six months beforehand, but in a friendly. 

The story goes that Laurie did so well for West Brom against Valencia that year that Real Madrid started sniffing around.

--- Quote ---"That was the game that everyone remembers," said Regis.
"He was electric, it was 90 minutes of sheer class. Everything went well - that performance captured whoever was looking for Real Madrid and sold him to the club."
--- End quote ---

In fact, another version has it that Laurie fetched up at the Bernabeu that summer and said, well what about it? They bit and the protracted negotiations took place at Fat Ron's house, I shit you not, the Madrid representatives all piled into Fat Ron's shag pile carpet and faux walnut drinks cabinet living room. Nobody spoke anyone else's language and they had one interpreter, so they ended up writing numbers on bits of paper. At one point, Ron's dog barked and Ron said to the Madrid boys, ya see? Even the dog thinks your offer is mad!

Anyway, a deal was done and Laurie became the first ever English footballer to play for Real Madrid. He had a successful first season, including an away win at Barcelona, where he apparently got a standing ovation from the socios, and won La Liga and Spanish Cup medals.

The following year, he was one of only two non Spaniards (the other was Uli Stielike) in the Real Madrid side who lost the European Cup Final to a certain Merseyside outfit captained by one P. Thompson. Interestingly, one of Liverpool’s first black players, Howard Gayle, was on the bench that night.

Laurie’s career after that was a peripatetic one, taking in loan spells at Man Utd and Gijon, as well as moves to Marseille, Leicester, Rayo Vallecano, Charleroi and Wimbledon.

From “baggiesteve” on the Footymad WBA forum…

--- Quote ---I have been attending the Hawthorns first team games since 1968 (I was a schoolboy) and up until the arrival of Laurie in 1977 had never seen a black player perform on our turf.

Cyrille and Brendan arrived the season afterwards.

Despite fierce intimidation, racist remarks and having bananas hurled at them which they ignored then they answered their critics with what they done on the pitch and were instrumental members of the best ever Albion team in my lifetime.

This went further than just the playing side, suddenly black faces started to appear on the terraces, black kids started to take an interest and joined school football teams whereby they only played cricket previously.

A top division black player was practically unheard of (however there had been a few earlier players, Clyde Best for example) but no team had ever had three playing the same side at the same time.

35 years on then approx 40% of Premiership players are black or of black origin.

England gave football to the world, West Bromwich Albion (a founder member) provided the impetus to give football to the people regardless of race or creed.

Those are two facts written in History which can never be denied or challenged and is a subject on which we the supporters, the club and the town are highly proud.
--- End quote ---

Laurie Cunningham died in a car crash in Spain in 1989. He was 33.

Phil M:
Excellent work, I wasn't aware of half of the above, very educational and a good read.

Postable. ;)

Veinticinco de Mayo:
Excellent that Corky. 

Really enjoyed that. Have to be honest being born in just 1981 a lot of the above was before my time. In fact it wasn´t until the early 90's that I understood racism in the world at all.

to be honest sounds like the lure of Real Madrid ruined him. 30plus years on and they are still signing talented players just to rot on the bench. Sahin would do well to force a move through to us if things go well for him this season. Real Madrid are more likely to sign whatever the next flavour of the month is than give him a real stint in the first team based on their past form.

Nice one man! :D


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