Laurie Cunningham's inspirational visit to Sheffield's African-Caribbean Community

12 Aug 2013 / News

On Tuesday 13th August, England Under-21s play Scotland Under-21s at Sheffield United's Bramall Lane. The fixture has been designated as part of the 'season of action' to mark the 20th anniversary of the Kick it Out campaign against racism in football.

The match has been dedicated to the memory of Laurie Cunningham, who scored the winning goal on his debut for England Under-21s, also against Scotland at Bramall Lane, in 1977, when he became the first black player to represent England at professional level.

There is an added significance to the occasion for Sheffield and for FURD, as a youth project based on Sharrow Lane also had the pleasure of welcoming the former Real Madrid star in for a meal of rice and peas the night before that very game.

Following a request from youth workers at The Hub African-Caribbean Centre to the then secretary of the Sheffield and Hallamshire County FA, Ernest Kangley, Laurie headed down to the pioneering project. The Hub's original youth club building was at The Stables, which later became the home of FURD, before our move to the nearby U-Mix Centre in August 2012.

He stayed for almost two hours talking to the young people and youth workers. During his visit, Laurie met with members of Sheffield Caribbean FC, a club that still exists to this day. This Tuesday, six of the people who got to meet Cunningham that night - Milton Samuels, Des Smith, Gilly Whyte, Pablo Joseph, Glen Rennie and Barry Eschoe - will be in attendance as guests of the FA and Kick it Out to see the tribute dedicated to their hero.

This story was the catalyst for the Laurie Cunningham Project, run by FURD and The Hub. More details about the project can be found at the links below. Filmed interviews with people who met Cunningham that night, along with interviews with former Blades Brian Deane and George Santos in which they talk about the impact Cunningham had, can now be viewed on our Youtube channel - follow the link below.

The impact the visit from Laurie had on the members of Caribbean FC was enormous, with many citing it as a reason for wanting to continue pursuing a career in football despite issues of racism being so prevalent. Former Caribbean FC player Gilly described it as an unforgettable experience.

"When we found out Laurie was coming to The Hub, we ran there from our training spot at Pomona Street, which was a two mile sprint," Gilly recalled. "When we saw him, we were totally gobsmacked and didn't know what to say. He was a really pleasant guy. When he came to Sheffield, there were a lot more black guys who wanted to play football because of the visit. He was a hero to many."

Milton, the then Caribbean FC manager and a youth worker at The Hub, said meeting the West Bromwich Albion legend was the highlight of his time in football. He was also enthused that his young team were able to meet a pioneering footballer from the black community.

"That was my fondest memory in football," admitted Milton. "We knew he had been selected for England to play at Bramall Lane. I was then asked to bring our team to The Hub to meet him. I thought it would be a great opportunity for the youngsters to meet someone they look up to.

"It's important that young players, black and white, still have the chance to aspire to be like their role models. Laurie did a lot for his community, talking to people like he did when he came to The Hub. It's important that professional players these days stay close to their roots, and are not perceived to be untouchable."

To honour the life of Laurie, FURD and The Hub held a celebratory dinner in 2009 at Sheffield United's Millennium Suite. Many of the Cunningham family were in attendance including Keith, the older brother of Laurie, who remembers the event with great fondness.

"I was overwhelmed by the support he received that night," said Keith. "The amount of people that had such positive words to say about him made me cry. We were incredibly well looked after, but it also reminded me that he should still be here with us. He was my idol."

The significant contribution Laurie made in the progression of black footballers was all the more impressive considering the horrific racial abuse players would suffer during the era he played in. FURD founder Howard Holmes cites this as a reason why many local black players from Sheffield saw their careers end prematurely.

"Laurie was a huge inspiration to young black people at the time, along with all those fighting racism," said Howard. "There were many highly talented black players in Sheffield at the time of his visit, and though some, like Barnsley and Rotherham winger Winston Campbell forged professional careers, there were a host of others who never fully realised their potential, and racism was a big factor in their underachievement."

Brian Deane and George Santos, two former Blades favourites, revealed how much of an impact the extraordinary talent of Laurie had on them when growing up."My heroes were the 'Three Degrees' at West Brom - Laurie, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson," said Brian. "The three of them played a massive role in my development as a footballer."

George felt privileged to know that he played on the same pitch as his hero. He said: "It was a pleasure to have played at Bramall Lane, to know that a big name like Laurie Cunningham played there too is a great feeling as well. "I was 12 or 13 years old when Laurie played for Marseille. They were my hometown team. He was a very skilful player, which we liked. I remember him being a very good player."

We are still keen to hear from anyone who has photos of Laurie Cunningham at the Hub - please get in touch!