As part of Kick It Out's 25th Anniversary, the organisation commissioned a new play called Getting The Third Degree, based on the extraordinary and inspiring life of Laurie Cunningham, written by award-winning playwright Dougie Blaxland and directed by Roughhouse Theatre.

After attending the performance in Norwich's Maddermarket Theatre, Kick It Out's resident blogger Asif Burhan has written a review.


40 years on from becoming the first Englishman to play for Real Madrid, Getting the Third Degree, directed by Rough House Theatre, sets out to reveal why Laurie Cunningham was so important in the history of this country's black footballers.

Former cricketer Dougie Blaxland, who has written successful plays for the cricket and rugby player’s unions, was commissioned by Kick It Out to produce a drama to mark the charity's 25th anniversary. For Blaxland, writing about Cunningham was the obvious choice.

"I'd seen him play in the 1970s against Fulham and he made my hero Bobby Moore, the England World Cup captain, look like a cart-horse. He had precocious skills that you didn't see in British football in those days which was all about work-rate, sweat and toil and boredom".

In a non-stop 65 minutes full of energy and enlightenment, the three actors, Emile Clarke, Sabrina Laurison and Zara Gabiddon rotate like a top-class forward line, continuously inter-changing between the 68 roles to combine the story of a football player's career with a lesson in how prejudice became deep-rooted and prevalent – and why Cunningham's experience is still relevant to us all today.

Props and costume chances were kept to a minimum as were the football scenes, as Blaxland explains, "you can't put sport on stage with actors. It just doesn't ring true. We wanted to create something that was an orchestrated, stylised representation of football and the culture of football.

“We cast two women and a man because we wanted to break away from the machismo of football. Laurie wasn’t that kind of a guy. He was an interesting, artistic introvert. We wanted those three actors to suggest he was many different things so we cast a man and two women of very different heights".

The play opens by paying homage to the black footballers who came before him, Arthur Wharton, Walter Tull and Jack Leslie, but goes on to explain how Cunningham was at the forefront of a more permanent vanguard created by the changing social demographics of the time.

In portraying how Caribbean people from the British Empire were enticed to emigrate to the "mother country" as part of the post-war Windrush, the story explains how black people were welcomed into the country in official newsreels by a government short of skilled workers – but simultaneously rejected by employers and landlords who flagrantly denied them any opportunity to live on equal terms with local residents.

It was into this climate that Laurence Paul Cunningham was born in Archway in 1956. His rejection by Arsenal as a schoolboy for failing to fit in with their straight-line system, symbolic of the way black people were marginalised by a social system weighted against them.

Given a chance at Leyton Orient by George Petchey, the way in which he and Cunningham wrestled over the manager's need for team discipline against the young footballer's desire to live by his own rules, is memorably portrayed in a dialogue which illustrated both men's capacity to succeed through negotiated consensus.

However, the play is also interspersed with the more common stubbornness of prevailing attitudes. That ranges from the obvious terrace abuse, a compliant media unwilling to report the racism they witnessed, through to a more sinister political undercurrent summed up in the provocative "five daughters" speech by John Tyndall, leader of the National Front.

Charting his transfer to West Bromwich Albion, the play focuses on Cunningham's two seminal performances in the winter of 1978; scoring at the Mestalla against Valencia in the UEFA Cup, followed by the much-celebrated 5-3 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford. It was the former that first earned him the Spanish nickname of "la perla negra", leading to his eventual transfer to Real Madrid and a standing ovation at Camp Nou after a match-winning performance in El Clasico.

The story ends as suddenly as Cunningham's own life with emotional tributes from his niece, Rhodene, ex-footballer and anti-racism campaigner Garth Crooks and MP David Lammy. Blaxland recalls, "Garth Crooks told me he used to drive down the M6 from Stoke to pay to watch Cunningham play. He couldn't believe football could be played that way".

As a young boy, cricketer Chris Lewis, the subject of another Dougie Blaxland play who has featured in a number of events promoting Getting The Third Degree, also watched Cunningham play for West Brom.

“He was a trailblazer, he represented all of us. Those black footballers inspired us; they spurred on a whole host of other sportsmen, not just in football. I look back on all those guys in absolute awe at what they achieved in spite of everything they went through”.

Getting the Third Degree shows Cunningham to be more than just a talented black football player. As a man and a footballer, he unashamedly went about life his own way. In choosing to hone his skills on the floors of dance halls rather than muddy training pitches, to setting trends in fashion, writing poetry, painting and not accepting any less than parity in pay negotiations, Cunningham was his own man in a time when conformity was seen as the only way to progress on and off the pitch. It was this unconventionality which made him such a revolutionary on the pitch, an individual with uncommon flair and swagger, rather than a footballer who complied with a staid English system.

It's those same qualities which make the likes of Raheem Sterling and Megan Rapinoe so important today. To understand why they speak out now, it is fundamental everyone understands the depth of the prejudice we are trying to evolve from. Works like Getting the Third Degree are vital in teaching a younger generation how to identify discrimination, in all its varied forms, so we can all hopefully eliminate it in future.

Blaxland concluded, "we want this to be a play that young boys and girls are inspired by, that they too can go out and do something remarkable with their lives, but we also want people like me, who may have all kinds of incipient racist attitudes locked inside them to think ‘God, I see myself’”.